Just over 100 years ago we had to deal with Spanish Flu.
Workplaces were very different then. Professional people were writing letters to each other from their office and there was no question of working from home.
Manual workers were forced to accept that death or serious injury in the workplace were genuine possibilities. Since then, we have come a long way with telecommunications for professional workers and the virtual elimination of death and serious injury in all but the most dangerous occupations.
Given the progress that has been made since, by the time we have the next pandemic, the idea of death or serious injury in the workplace should be inconceivable.
But for now and for all types of workers, we have the challenge of fatigue. Everyone is feeling fatigued - at more work-related challenges, more bad news and more fundamental changes to our daily lives.
I am particularly interested in the issue of fatigue as I have been working with the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) for the past few years trying to understand how to measure, manage and reduce fatigue in what might be termed normal circumstances. Given how much has changed in our ways of working and living this year, it almost feels like we need to go back and start all over.
But maybe there’s an opportunity to accept this “new normal” and see if we can take some of the strategies we’ve been developing to the next level.
Workplace fatigue was a big issue even before the pandemic. The Sleep Health Foundation estimated the cost of inadequate sleep to the Australian economy in 2016-17 to be $66.3 billion, including $26.2 billion from productivity loss and $40.1 billion from the adverse impact on wellbeing.
I think it’s fair to assume that for some occupations the question of fatigue has now taken on a whole new dimension.
People with certain jobs – especially those classified as essential services, many of whom undertake shift work - are working much longer hours and operating in circumstances where risks are high. Truck drivers and people involved in services deemed “essential” to our supply chains will be at risk of high workloads and fatigue.
Health workers too will be under pressure and we need to consider the impact on them.
The research generated by the Alertness CRC has shown how a focus on fatigue and the management of work schedules can improve productivity and reduce errors in a medical setting.
The CRC researchers deployed a neurobiological model of alertness and built this model into “alert-safe” rosters.
After running alert-safe rosters for medical teams at different hospitals, our analysis of medical errors showed that these rosters achieved an improvement of around 15%.
In many cases, fatigue is caused by poor working patterns that prevent sufficient quality and quantity of sleep, and this reinforces the fatigue cycle. Other research has identified the link between poor sleep and a host of chronic conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
And what about employers? How do they measure and manage fatigue in a workforce operating remotely? It was difficult enough when you had your workers in your factory or your professionals in the office.
Through the Alertness CRC we’ve developed a sophisticated scheduling tool to reduce workplace fatigue, errors and accidents. If we’re not going to start using these tools and seeing them widely adopted in Australian workplaces now, then when?
If people look back on this time and see we’ve failed to learn the lessons about fatigue – serious and fatal accidents are still happening and people are still enduring chronic conditions associated with fatigue and there are sophisticated work schedule systems sitting on the shelf gathering dust - then surely they will think we missed an opportunity to learn some lessons and implement solutions at a time when fatigue defined our life.