Australia: Its time to take an early mark… Tips for employers to manage fatigue in the workplace

Last Updated: 5 March 2017
Article by Shae McCartney and Joanne Stevenson

Most Read Contributor in Australia, November 2017

The issue of fatigue management is not one that will be solved overnight, but clear basic steps can help you keep your employees healthy.

If you work more than 39 hours per week without putting in appropriate control measures you are potentially putting your workers' health and safety at risk, new research has revealed.1 This has potential flow-on effects for organisations who, by law, have obligations to ensure the health and safety of their workers.

What were the findings?

The study by the Australian National University has revealed that while spending "an amount" of time at work generally improves the mental health of workers, there is a tipping point, after which workers are at risk of suffering negative impacts.

The study found that beyond 39 hours, mental and physical health generally declined because workers had less time to eat well and properly look after themselves. This has significant implications for approximately two-thirds of Australians in full-time employment who currently work more than 40 hours per week.

The study also revealed that the 39 hour tipping point went lower still for workers with care and domestic responsibilities, with the maximum healthy working hours per week for these workers set at 34. In general, women devoted approximately five hours more per week to unpaid care and domestic commitments than men. Women were also more likely to report financial hardship, poorer mental health and more chronic health conditions than men. The decline in mental health after 40 hours was sharpest amongst women, which was consistent with the gender working differences found by the study.

Workers working greater than 39 hours per week are consequently more at risk of suffering from fatigue. Fatigue is defined as a state of impairment resulting from mental or physical exertion and is associated with reduced performance, impaired decision-making, lack of motivation, tiredness and poor concentration. Work practices may exacerbate fatigue in employees, especially those working long hours over a prolonged period of time. Long-term exposure to fatigue has also been linked to long-term health problems such as obesity, poor work performance and psychological illness.

Does that mean workers cannot work more than 39 hours per week?

The study identifies a risk that employers must be aware of. What the study did not do is look at the control measures employers can use to manage that risk and reduce the impact working long hours has on an employee's fitness for work.

The study does not mean that if an employee works more than 39 hours they will be harmed or are a risk to harming others, but it does identify that when employees regularly work long hours employers must have holistic measures to ensure that this can be done safely.

Why does this impact me?

This finding has the potential to impact on an organisation's obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) including to ensure the health and safety of their employees and other workers and provide a safe workplace that is free from risk so far as reasonably practicable.

Fatigue can adversely affect workplace health and safety, which is a major cause for concern for organisations, and particularly in industries such as manufacturing, construction, mining and logistics. An organisation's obligations under the Act extend to putting in place adequate control measures for their workers to manage and address the risks associated with fatigue, stress and physical and mental injury. Workers also have a duty to manage fatigue themselves by ensuring that they take reasonable care for their own health and safety.

When fatigue risk factors are identified and managed, workplaces not only benefit from reduced safety risks but also improved productivity and engagement.

So, what can I do to fix it?

All workers have different fatigue thresholds, so recognising whether or not a worker is affected by fatigue can be difficult. To keep your workers safe and healthy (and therefore more productive) in the workplace, employers should consider ensuring workloads are managed effectively and workers are not working unsustainable hours for long periods of time.

In order to manage and prevent employee fatigue, employers should consider introducing the following initiatives at their workplaces:

  • develop a workplace culture which reinforces safe work practices and promotes efficiency and employee work-life balance over long working hours;
  • train and educate employees on what fatigue is and the risks it poses to health and safety;
  • manage employees' work hours and workloads to ensure that they are adequately supported;
  • implement workplace policies and procedures that incorporate fatigue management;
  • monitor employees' general wellbeing and have regular check-ins to ensure they are not fatigued;
  • stop employees from working when fatigued, including where appropriate having an option to cease work if they are feeling fatigued without any financial penalty;
  • provide flexible working arrangements including allowing employees to work from home, work remotely and/or work part-time where appropriate;
  • ensure that employees receive adequate assistance from support staff and take regular and frequent rest breaks; and
  • give employees time off in lieu where they have worked long hours for a prolonged period of time.

Organisations also need to ensure that workers other than employees are also protected through, for example, requiring contractors to also have effective fatigue management policies and procedures in place.

The issue of fatigue management is not one that will be solved overnight. According to the Australian National University study, before positive change will occur, Australia needs to dispel the widespread belief that people need to work long hours to do a good job. Safely managing fatigue and the risks that it poses not only avoids the potential for fatigue-related injury but increases productivity, morale, employee wellbeing and ultimately has flow-on effects throughout the community.

Footnotes

1 Huong Dinh, Lyndall Strazdins and Jennifer Welsh, "Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities" (2017) 176 Social Science & Medicine 42-51. The study involved data from approximately 8,000 Australian adults as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this bulletin. Persons listed may not be admitted in all states and territories.

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