August 1, 2006 | Mark Paradies


The Secret Cost of Fatigue

by Bill Sirois, Circadian Technologies

On the surface of things, fatigue seems fairly straightforward. We all get tired, do what we need to do to get through it, and then catch up on our sleep when we can. We still harbor a cultural mentality of mind over matter, and of human failing if one allows themselves to get tired to the point of being unfit for duty. After all “if our people spent more time in bed getting their proper rest (and less time watching TV, sitting in a bar, or allowing themselves to be compromised by family life and personal activities), then they wouldn’t be tired on the job.” In other words, from a management perspective, fatigue is often perceived to be a behavioral problem, caused more by personal irresponsibility than by other factors (and certainly not by our operating policies and procedures). Well, those of us who have lived and worked shiftwork know better. Just try sleeping in the daytime and see how much “proper rest” YOU can get!

Similarly, we have this notion that, like our machinery, employee work capacity is a lineal function. In other words, one can work as many days in a row as they (or we) would like without any significant problem, and we’re happy to let them do it. Overtime saves having to hire more people and paying all their costly benefits, and it sure makes a supervisor’s job a whole lot easier to fill absences, vacations, and other benefit days off by dishing out the overtime to those who want it. Plus, we rationalize, people are happy to have the extra money. I used to think this way too, when I worked and managed shifts, but after several close calls, I realized that I was kidding myself and putting myself and others at risk.

Over the past 25 years, extensive research has confirmed that fatigue, as related to shiftwork, is fundamentally a physiological problem, not a behavioral one. Certainly, one’s behavior can induce or compound fatigue, but with most shiftworkers this is the exception and not the rule. Rather, shiftworker fatigue is driven primarily by four factors:

1. Our biological clocks/circadian rhythms (i.e. basic human physiology)

2. The operational necessity to keep the equipment running 24-hours per day (i.e. automation, continuous process, asset utilization, reduced unit costs, improved customer service, etc…)

3. Counter productive management attitudes, policies, and operating procedures that detract from human performance, rather than supporting it (i.e. lack of knowledge/understanding)

4. Lack of employee knowledge and understanding on how to manage shiftwork, in general, and fatigue and alertness levels, in particular (i.e. lack of training).

Having said all that, let’s define what we mean by fatigue and look at some of its consequences and costs:

What is Fatigue

Impaired alertness

State of impaired mental/physical performance

Reduced vigilance/attentiveness

Loss of cognitive/logical reasoning skills

Impaired judgment

Reduced motor coordination

Slower reaction time

Diminished ability to communicate and/or process communications

Loss of environmental awareness

Consequences of Fatigue

Increased Human Error

Reduced Ability to Work Safely

Reduced Productivity/Customer Service Quality

Inadequate/Ineffective Communications

Increased Turnover/Absenteeism

Reduced Morale/Poorer Labor Relations

Increased Health/Wellness Costs

Reduced Operating Efficiency/Reliability

Increased Costs, Risks, and Liabilities

Reducing Operating Profit

Costs of Fatigue

Accidents $8.5 Billion

Lost Productivity $79.7 Billion

Health Care $ 28.3 Billion

Total $116.5 Billion

So how, as a company or as plant mangers, can we objectively and systematically eliminate fatigue from our operations, thereby reducing our costs, risks and liabilities to achieve an overall improvement in operational efficiency….while at the same time improve employee health, safety and quality of life to create a win-win proposition? Perhaps this sounds far fetched, but it’s already being done. With the current knowledge base that exists today, dramatic improvements can be achieved in the way people live and work, to the betterment of both the employees and the business.

The first, and most important step, is to recognize the serious cost of fatigue and make a corporate commitment to fix it. Too many companies are losing money and risking the safety of their employees by not recognizing the importance of fatigue management. This is evident by the fact that over 90% of shiftworkers receive no training on how to manage their schedule and shiftwork lifestyles. I see too many shiftworkers who are well trained and great at their jobs, but who have never been shown how to deal with fatigue and adapt to the unique physical and social challenges of shiftwork. As a consequence, they fall into common shiftwork pitfalls that compromise their ability to perform to their full capabilities. This is just one of the many reasons shiftwork employees cost companies roughly $8,600 per person per year in excess costs over and above their daytime counterparts.

Once a company has made a commitment to reduce fatigue and optimize the productivity and safety of their workforce, they need to develop a comprehensive fatigue management plan. To be successful this program must at the very least:

Ensure that work schedules and overtime policies do not cause excessive fatigue.

Provide training for employees to assist them with reducing fatigue and coping with working at difficult times, especially with new hires.

Reinforce the commitment to reduce fatigue by providing educational support publications and practical shiftwork tips on a regular basis.

Evaluate lighting, temperature, sound and other environmental modifications to reduce fatigue.

Optimize staffing levels to maintain manageable overtime levels.

Reevaluate policies, practices and procedures that may no longer be valid.

As responsible managers and operators, we strive to keep our machinery well oiled and well maintained. We ensure that it is operated in full accordance with the design specifications, in terms of operating temperature, pressure, speeds, etc… To do otherwise would ensure premature failure, costly downtime, high maintenance, and lost productivity/capacity.

It would thus seem to make sense to keep what we all tout as our most important asset – our people – equally well oiled and maintained. Yet, ironically, our people are asked to operate outside their design specs every day to support our continuous production requirements. The net result, as you might guess, has been premature failure, costly downtime, high maintenance, and a well documented 2-3 time increase in cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, sleep disorders, and human error. Neglecting this most important asset can be costly, if not catastrophic. It is crucial to know that these costs, risks and liabilities no longer have to an accepted part of doing business. With today’s knowledge base and fatigue/shiftwork interventions, they can be converted into a new source of operating profit and reliability that we never knew existed before.

If you are interested in learning more about how to reduce fatigue and improve the productivity and health of your company’s employees, please contact us. CIRCADIAN has over 20 years of experience of installing fatigue management programs throughout all shiftwork industries. You can reach us by calling our toll-free number at 1-800-284-5001 or e-mailing us at

Most Sincerely,

William G. Sirois

Senior Vice President

Circadian Technologies

This article is reprinted from Managing 24/7 by permission of Circadian Technologies.

Managing 24/7 is published by Circadian Technologies, Inc., the leading international research and consulting firm providing programs to reduce the costs, risks, and liabilities of human factors in the 24/7 workplace. For more information, please visit

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