Identifying and preventing fatigue in shift workers

Fatigue can seriously impact your employees' health and wellbeing, and can lead to errors, injuries and decreased productivity.

Shift workers are one of the highest risk groups, as their hours often preclude regular breaks, and meaningful rest time. In this guide we go through the risks, warning signs and ways to manage fatigue in shift workers.

What you need to know

If you are carrying out a business, you are under a duty of care not to expose your employees to any health and safety risks, including fatigue. Prolonged fatigue can lead to physical and mental impairment, as well as impact productivity and work quality.

Shift work can be defined as work that starts before 8am or finishes after 6pm. It can also include shifts that change normal sleeping patterns. It is essential that people get enough sleep to restore themselves physically and mentally, as sleep is the only way to recover from fatigue.

What Causes Fatigue?


Rostering and hours worked are a significant factor in fatigue. When shifts get in the way of proper rest, or extend too long, employees will not be able to recover from their work and they are likely to become fatigued.

Work type

The mental and physical demands of the work will also contribute. Jobs that take a lot of concentration, repetition or physical effort can cause more fatigue than jobs that are less mentally or physically strenuous.


The work environment can have an impact on an employee’s fatigue, whether causing it with improper tools, or indirectly contributing to it, by failing to create proper rest spaces.


Organisational and individual factors will also contribute. An organisation that has a culture of overworking will find an increase in fatigue. On an individual level, if an employee fails to get adequate rest they will likely suffer from fatigue and the subsequent decrease in happiness and quality of life.

Spotting fatigue

It’s important to head fatigue off at the pass by catching these warning signs:

Review schedules

Review your schedules frequently, check for frequent overtime shifts, any employees taking on significantly higher workloads, or a lack of adequate gaps between shifts.

Talk to your managers

Talk to your managers, get an understanding of how the business requirements impact shift times and work loads.

Watch the numbers

Look out for increases in absenteeism, incidents and accidents, and reports of physical symptoms such as dizziness. Behavioural changes in things such as mood and motivation, or productivity and error rate can all be signifiers that your workplace has issues with fatigue.

Managing fatigue

Take proactive steps to manage shift worker fatigue:

Sleep it off

Sleep is critical to avoiding fatigue, and this is often not sufficiently accounted for with shift workers. Make sure that each roster provides for continuous seven to eight hours of sleep in every 24-hour period, with 50 total hours per week. Where possible, account for travel and personal time as well.

Watch the night owls

Night shifts can impact a person's natural rhythms so need to be managed carefully. Keep consecutive night shifts below four, and try and have them finish before 8am. Make it possible for staff to rest or nap if the work type allows, and avoid long shifts during these hours.

Break up the shifts

During the shift measures can be taken to avoid fatigue. Make sure staff take proper breaks, at least five to 10 minutes every two hours. Give them places to rest before and after shifts, and provide access to healthy food options.

Preach work-life balance

Education around diet, managing workload and balancing work and life can give an employee the tools to manage their own energies. Overwork can be as much a cultural problem as it is a resource or environmental one. Show your workers your priorities by preaching proper rest and workload management. We've developed this poster to help, visit myGB Poster Designer to customise it with your OHS details.

Maintain the balance

Your shift workers face a tough job, often working long hours, when everyone else is comfy in bed. Understand, identify and manage fatigue and you will reduce attrition, stress-related claims and injuries. Further to this, you will maintain a high standard of work and most importantly have happy, well-rested employees. If you think you could improve the way you manage stress and fatigue, have a chat with us and make sure you don’t end up managing an injury that could have been avoided.

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This publication is not intended to offer legal advice or client-specific risk management advice. General descriptions contained herein do not include complete definitions, terms, and/or conditions, and should not be relied on for claims management interpretation. Actual claims and risk management policies must always be consulted for full coverage details and analysis.

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