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Managing fatigue in shift-based workers

Anyone who has had a sleepless night can attest to the lethargy, not to mention the physical and mental impairment, which typically follows the next day. In the workplace, fatigue can have a devastating impact on health and wellbeing, which can potentially lead to errors, decreased productivity, injuries or even – tragically – fatalities.


Unfortunately, shift workers are a high-risk group, as their hours can preclude regular breaks and meaningful rest time, and often disrupt normal sleep patterns. This blog outlines some of the risks, the warning signs to watch out for, and how to manage fatigue in shift-based (‘deskless’) workers.

All employers carry a duty of care not to expose employees to health and safety risks, including fatigue. There are four basic steps in effective risk management:
1. Identifying hazards
2. Assessing risks that may result because of hazards
3. Deciding on control measures to prevent or minimise the level of risks
4. Monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of control measures
Keep these four steps in mind when creating policies and initiatives relating to fatigue management in the workplace.

Warning signs to look out for

When it comes to fatigue management, prevention is better than a cure. Avoiding any fatigue-related accidents or incidents occurring in the first place is the ultimate goal. Managers need to be trained to spot warning signs that someone may be struggling. These warning signs might include:

  • Increases in absenteeism, incidents and accidents, and reports or observance of physical symptoms such as dizziness or reduced hand-eye coordination in workers.
  • Reports or observance of psychological symptoms such as reduced ability to process information, memory lapses or decreased awareness.
  • Unexpected changes in the mood and behaviour of team members, or productivity dips and error rate increases.
  • Workers taking on significantly higher workloads, more overtime, or a not having adequate gaps between shifts. These signs can only be seen by regularly checking schedules and identifying potential problems or trends before they escalate.

Fatigue management

What proactive steps can be taken to ensure that the risks associated with fatigue are minimised? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Keep an eye on shifts and rosters

Not surprisingly, rosters and shifts play a key role in minimising the risks of worker fatigue. For those managers creating rosters, there are several elements to consider:

  1. Sleep is critical to avoiding fatigue. Ensure the roster provides for a continuous seven to eight hours sleep in each 24-hour period, and at least 50 hours sleep for every seven days. Where possible, account for travel/commute and personal time as well.
  2. Limit the number of consecutive night shifts to four to minimise the risk of accidents, and try to ensure they end by 8am.
  3. Ensure there is a minimum of 12 hours between consecutive shifts.
  4. Ensure the roster allows for at least two full nights’ sleep after the last night shift
  5. Assess whether 12-hour night shifts are really necessary.
  6. Avoid scheduling of safety critical work outside the low body clock hours of 2am-6am and 2pm-4pm – these time periods are typically when people have lower levels of alertness.
  7. Additional control measures might include breaks of at least 5-10 minutes every two hours. Time spent away from the immediate work environment provides an opportunity to recalibrate and rest. Breaks should be taken during work shifts and should not be traded for an early finish time. Keep in mind that rest breaks may be mandatory under government or industry regulations, or industrial Awards/Agreements. If possible, give workers places to rest before and after shifts – or offer a place to sleep before commuting home. Providing alternate means of getting home following long shifts or when public transport is not running is also advisable.


Minimise extended hours at work

Whether planned or unplanned, extended work hours can overflow into the personal lives of workers and impact sleep. It’s critical to track and monitor the number of hours each worker is doing every day. Note that the type of work being undertaken also needs to be considered, as the level of physical and mental effort required will vary. Jobs requiring intense concentration, heavy physical labour or repetitious tasks may increase fatigue.

Avoiding unnecessary extended hours can be achieved by ensuring there is sufficient cover for workers who are on annual or sick leave, and – if overtime is unavoidable – planning for it and alerting workers well in advance so they can schedule their other life activities around it. In addition, managers should try to:

  • Limit overtime to four hours for eight-hour shifts
  • Limit overtime to two hours for shifts longer than 10 hours
  • Prevent those working shifts longer than 12 hours from undertaking any overtime
  • Limit total hours per week to 55

Prioritise health and wellbeing in your workplace
Workplace cultures where overtime is the norm will likely find that fatigue is a genuine and risky concern. Employers today are more aware of the benefits that flow when they take a proactive approach to employee health and wellbeing. For shift workers, education around diet, managing workload and creating work-life balance can help with overall wellbeing. Many leading employers take a holistic approach to employee wellbeing covering four key pillars of wellbeing: physical, mental, financial and social. Read more in our blogs here and here.

Further tips

The following suggestions are also worth considering:

  • Offer regular shift or work patterns. Working patterns are the division of the standard time and the number of hours an employee works each day in a contractual work week. These patterns can help with work-life balance and overall health and wellbeing. Read more about working patterns in our blog. Managers should be aware that while employees should be consulted on preferred working hours and shift patterns, some employees may prefer certain shift patterns that are unhealthy and likely to cause fatigue, so manager discretion is advised.
  • Ensure there is adequate supervision, no matter when a shift falls
  • Consider previous hours and days worked by each employee. The cumulative effects of fatigue due lack of rest between shifts, or the length of those shifts, can result in ‘sleep debt’. Giving workers two successive full days off within a seven day period can help them catch up on sleep.
  • Create a workplace fatigue policy, as this can be an effective way to communicate your organisation’s procedures to workers. It may include information about the role of managers and supervisors, maximum shift length, average weekly hours and total hours over a three-month period, procedures for reporting potential hazards or fatigue risks, and procedures for managing fatigued workers, including what will happen if they are too fatigued to continue working (e.g. temporary task re-allocation).
  • Offer manager and worker training about fatigue covering the elements that contribute to fatigue, symptoms of fatigue, the risks associated with fatigue, procedures for reporting fatigue, effects of drugs, alcohol or medication, and the body clock and how fatigue can affect it.


The role of technology

There’s clearly a lot to consider when it comes in managing – or avoiding – worker fatigue. Thankfully, technology can help.

Humanforce’s Roster & Scheduling solution helps HR and managers build smart, compliant, demand-based rosters in minutes. Intelligent features include capacity and demand-based alerts and notifications for when rostering anomalies occur. Our rostering tools also help customers work within budgets and award rules across one or many locations, while our roster templates help supervisors to manage their team’s schedules and staff members efficiently and effectively. Even better, unexpected absences – which can lead to other workers doing extra shifts to cover for them – can be covered effectively with shift offers and shift bidding functions.

Similarly, our Workforce Analytics solution can help identify trends and potential problems before they flare. Our in-built reports include project costs, tardiness reporting, hours worked to hours rostered ratios, causes of unauthorised timesheets, and more. Alternately, customers can use a custom dashboard builder to report on the metrics that matter most to their business.

This blog only covers the foundational elements of what can be a complex topic. Your workplace may be governed by industrial Awards/Agreements and other government and regulatory bodies. Always seek professional legal advice. For more comprehensive guides, try these resources for Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

How Humanforce can help

Humanforce is a leading provider of shift-based workforce management solutions that simplify onboarding, scheduling, time and attendance, pay, employee engagement, and communication. Customers in more than 23 countries use Humanforce to optimise costs, realise compliance confidence, empower their team, and drive growth. Humanforce was founded in Sydney in 2002, and today has offices across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK.

For more information on how Humanforce can help your organisation to offer early access to earned wages, or to discover how our software can automate and simplify your workforce management processes, contact us or schedule a demo.




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