My portfolio is filled with a very diverse set of careers and because of that, I can speak firsthand when I say the most important aspect of fatigue management is cultural management. How tired, how exhausted or on the flip side, how awake and energized your workforce is falls completely on the culture your company has cultivated. I will walk you through my experiences working for different organizations and how those subcultures affected the base of how fatigue was managed.
My first career was in law enforcement, and fatigue management is more of a cultural aspect of “embracing the suck”. Odd shift rotations, continual alteration of shifts to match “the needs of the service” and no real fatigue management program in place are all direct indicators to the culture towards fatigue management in the police service.
We did have “quiet rooms” designed for us to get some sleep if needed but we all knew if you used it, the stigma would be that you were lazy, weak and not part of the team. The rooms were dirty, stuffy and usually stacked with storage items. The rooms were being supplied as a fatigue management tool, but it was more than apparent that using them was not culturally acceptable.
As a cop, functioning with a few hours of sleep on a regular basis and being awake for more than 24 hours at a time was a regular occurrence. It was a culture of bravado and machismo; earning bragging rights on how little sleep we could function. But it was the highest risk work I have ever done; fatigue was playing Russian roulette with everyone’s life.
When I was working in oil and gas, it had a little bit better culture because if you did not get eight hours off between shifts, you were not allowed to work. The level of risk to the worker was recognized as increasing dramatically with lack of sleep but what wasn’t recognized was if someone was feeling fatigued at work, the idea of properly managing that fatigue was not culturally acceptable. There was no way you could get a brief nap in to feel recharged or safer. It was a culture of “you better go to bed early” at the end of the shift but continue to work at full production while you are here. The oil and gas world had a “cowboy up” culture towards fatigue management, even though the work in the oil and gas industry was fraught with risks and various attention-needed processes. Fatigue could be deadly and costly.
Now working in the construction IT industry, building huge mega structures, there is a culture valuing quality of time, not quantity of time. It is a culture based on understanding not about how many hours you work, but what you produce and if you meet your expectations. We have quiet rooms, sleep pods and massage chairs. We have an amazing culture that if you choose to take a 20 minute nap, people commend such self-care. If you are nodding off or looking exhausted, supervisors will tell you to get a recharge in. Fatigue in this industry can be costly because it is a culture of peak performance and it recognizes the loss of efficacy that occurs when fatigued.
Now that I have had the chance to experience the difference in true fatigue management, I found an ironic correlation to how the culture towards dealing with fatigue and the level of risk that the work entails. It seems to follow that psychological phenomenon that if people live in an earthquake prone environment, they focus less on that looming danger. Having such high-risk work seemed to create a culture where we fail to recognize and deal with the increased risk of not being rested enough.
Seeing how fatigue is managed with my new employer, many of the preconceived notions I started with when I entered the IT industry changed. I changed my views when I saw how successful it was because of how different fatigue management and a productivity culture was. I saw firsthand that part of their fatigue management culture was to manage your fatigue, not simply grab another cup of coffee to artificially stimulate you for the next few hours. Watching this new culture, I saw that no one is abusing the quiet rooms, sleeping countless hours away while at work. No one’s performance is lowered and there is a positive gain on production.
I have seen how recharged, how engaged and how energized workers are if they are given the chance to get a moment of rest in if they need it.
We need to pay attention to how people’s interpretations of risks are shaped by their own experience, personal feelings and values, company values, cultural beliefs and interpersonal and societal dynamics. Through this we can cultivate a new path forward, increasing productivity, increasing worker engagement, reducing worker burnout, reducing the chance of worker injury and liability. With the change of culture, we can finally embrace the idea of true fatigue management.
We need to follow the motto, “If we talk the talk, we need to walk the walk.” Workplace injuries can be a significant burden for safety professionals. Not only can injuries cause considerable pain for the employees involved, they can also reduce worker morale, hinder production and output, hurt recruitment, and cause significant legal and regulatory headaches. In short, nothing is more important for a business’s success than worker safety.