Fatigue: whole of life, whole of person
Fatigue is more than just tiredness. And it’s far more dangerous.
“Everyone feels a bit tired, but fatigue is a cognitive and physical impairment,” says Dr Robert Adams, Professor of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at Flinders University, SA, and Consultant Physician in Respiratory and Sleep Services at Southern Adelaide Local Health Network.
“That can be mental tasks, your alertness, how well you drive and operate machinery. It can also be how well you can respond to changes in the environment. For example, how well you respond to changes in your driving environment or problems on the road.”
It’s a severe problem; fatigue is the leading cause of truck driver deaths in road crashes, with 35% of truck driver deaths in 2019 resulting from fatigue crashes (NTARC 2020).
How, then, can transport industry managers and businesses protect their teams from fatigue? Providing a safe workplace is a fundamental requirement, but the good news is that you can take many steps – some of them today – towards helping your drivers become fatigue-free.
Sleep deprivation: a silent killer
Good sleep has a structure. It starts with getting to sleep quickly rather than tossing and turning. But ‘sleep architecture’ is important too. There should also be a smooth flow between the different stages of sleep – light sleep, deep sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, dreaming sleep.
According to Dr Adams, many factors can contribute to poor sleep architecture, including physical and mental health, lifestyle and diet. For example:
- Caffeine: can interfere with how well you get to sleep.
- Alcohol: can help you get to sleep but disturbs your quality of sleep.
- Obesity: contributes to difficulty sleeping.
- Stress: poor mental health can cause problems in getting to sleep and disrupting your sleep.
Less than five hours of sleep in a night impairs your mental and physical capabilities by around the same amount as having a 0.05% blood alcohol level.
As a manager, you have a responsibility to your workers. Few drivers will come to work and tell you they’re too tired to drive. But many will come to work in varying states of fatigue. There’s no simple test, but Dr Adams says there are some signs that you may be fatigued, not just a bit tired:
- Feeling tired: “If you feel like you need to go to sleep, you’re probably sleep-deprived. If you’re okay in the morning but always want an afternoon nap, then you may be lacking in amount and quality of sleep.”
- Sleep inertia: “Some people naturally come out of sleep slowly. They feel a bit slow or sluggish. But if that extends later on after you’ve been up for a while, then you’re probably underdone for sleep.”
- Gut problems: “Sleep deprivation can be like jet lag. Feeling your bowels are a bit disturbed or your stomach isn’t quite settled can be a problem.”
- Mental sharpness: “You might notice you’re not driving as well. But also, your memory isn’t working as well, you’re forgetting things, you put stuff down, and you don’t remember where it is, the sorts of common things where people just shrug it off and say ‘Oh, that’s just me’ or ‘I’m getting old’, might be a problem with your sleep or rest.”
The challenge is that most of these signs are internal, and even fatigued individuals may not notice them. That’s why it’s essential to look at the bigger picture and consider your drivers as people, not simply as employees.
Take a whole-person approach
Fatigue is a whole-of-life problem, so managing it requires a whole-of-life approach. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to take a more holistic view of your team members; a ‘tick the box’ mentality – filling in a work diary, meeting required minimum rest times, maximum drive times and so on – isn’t enough.
Conversations and briefings around fatigue can be delicate. When you speak to a driver or employee about their lifestyle, you risk intruding on their private time and private behaviour.
But the reality is that we all, to some extent, bring our private lives and private behaviours with us into the workplace. Falling asleep in front of a computer almost certainly won’t cause a disaster for a transport company. Falling asleep behind the wheel of a fully loaded B-double almost certainly will.
What, then, can you do as a manager to protect your team members against fatigue? The key is prevention; once a driver is fatigued, they aren’t safe behind the wheel.
Here are a few tips from Doctor Adams on helping your drivers manage fatigue:
- Work structures: “Start with the simple, structural components, such as shift length and the time between shifts. Find flexibility where you can to give your drivers the best opportunity for high-quality sleep.”
- Sleep support: “Give people access to support if they’re having problems with their sleep. Sleeping tablets are not the first line of recommended treatment. Behavioural therapies, talking therapies, psychological therapies all work better than sleeping tablets for insomnia, so facilitating access or even supporting that financially can be helpful.”
- Lifestyle: “Provide access and encourage lifestyle aspects of access to exercise and the ability to exercise, discouraging smoking and pointing out some of the dangers of binge drinking which is a common thing in Australia.”
- Life events: “People who’ve got caring duties, children who are unwell, partners who are unwell, who are looking after elderly relatives can all have problems with their sleep and so may need closer monitoring and support.”
Keep in mind that sleep problems, such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), may require assistance from the affected person’s doctor. If a driver is feeling sleepy or fatigued, or is constantly snoring, you should encourage them to see their GP.
You don’t need to become your drivers’ best mate nor do you need to become their life coach. Trust is the key. If your drivers feel comfortable discussing issues in their life which could be impacting on their sleep, you’ll be able to take a holistic approach to managing them and their fatigue.
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This article has been developed as part of NTI’s The Business of Safety series with the aim of helping transport and logistics businesses become safer and more sustainable. The Business of Safety is funded by the NHVR’s Heavy Vehicle Safety Initiative, supported by the Australian Government.
- Information in this document is a guide only. It does not take into account your personal or business circumstances. Whilst all due care has been taken, you must not rely on the information as an alternative to legal, legislated regulatory and compliance requirements associated with your business activities. NTI.MBOS10.24052021