Fatigue is more than feeling tired and drowsy – fatigue is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces the ability to work safely and effectively. It can happen when someone is overworked, not sleeping right or has had a disruption to their internal body clock. 

If you’re a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a work health and safety (WHS) duty to prevent fatigue.  

Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own safety and health and make sure their acts or omissions don’t adversely affect the health or safety of others. 

Signs and symptoms of fatigue 

The effects of fatigue can be short or long term. In the short term, a person may show signs or report symptoms like: 

  • constant yawning or falling asleep at work 

  • short-term memory problems and a hard time concentrating 

  • finding it hard to join in conversations 

  • bad decision-making and judgment 

  • reduced hand-eye coordination or slow reflexes 

  • changes in behaviour, for example, repeatedly arriving late for work 

  • increase in unplanned absence. 

A fatigued worker may also experience symptoms not obvious to others including: 

  • feeling drowsy 

  • headaches 

  • dizziness 

  • difficulty concentrating 

  • blurred vision 

  • a need for extended sleep during days off work. 

Causes of fatigue 

The causes of fatigue can be work-related, personal or both. Fatigue can also be short term or build up over time. Work-related causes of fatigue may include: 

  • prolonged or intense (e.g. mental or physical) tasks or jobs 

  • sleep loss or disruption to your internal body clock 

  • organisational change 

  • travel 

  • uncomfortable or hazardous working environments (e.g. working in heat) 

  • work scheduling 

  • excessively long shifts 

  • not enough time to recover between shifts 

  • long commuting times. 

Workers at high risk of fatigue 

Some workers are at a high risk of fatigue because their work typically involves some, or all, of these causes, for example: 

  • shift workers 

  • night workers 

  • fly-in, fly-out or drive in, drive out workers 

  • seasonal workers 

  • on-call and call-back workers 

  • emergency services 

  • medical professionals and other frontline health workers. 

Impacts of fatigue in the workplace 

Fatigue can affect safety at the workplace.  

It reduces alertness which may lead to errors and can increase the risk of an incidents or injuries for the fatigued worker and others. Particularly when a worker is:   

  • operating fixed or mobile plant 

  • driving a vehicle, such as a taxi or courier van 

  • working at heights 

  • taking part in medical or surgical procedures 

  • working with flammable or explosive substances 

  • doing hazardous work – for example, electrical work. 

Fatigue can also have long-term effects on workers’ physical and mental health, these can include: 

  • heart disease 

  • diabetes 

  • high blood pressure 

  • gastrointestinal disorders 

  • lower fertility 

  • anxiety, or 

  • depression.