Everyone experiences fatigue at some time or other in their life. It is a feeling of weariness that does not abate even after resting or sleeping. Fatigue can be caused by a number of things that include sickness or stress, but it is also commonly caused by the use of drugs and alcohol. Fatigue has many symptoms that vary from person to person, and in the workplace any of these symptoms can lower work performance and increase the possibility of injury. Fatigue as a workplace risk needs to be taken very seriously, and its relationship to substance use or abuse recognised so that it can be addressed in employee education programs.
The first point to bear in mind is that fatigue is not the same thing as being tired. People who are tired will feel better after getting adequate rest or sleep. The symptoms of fatigue include muscle weakness, slowed reflexes, lack of normal responses, dizziness, impaired hand-to-eye coordination, poor concentration, reduced ability to pay attention, blurred vision, and many others.1 Each one of the symptoms can impair work performance, leading to frequent mistakes and lack of production. More importantly, fatigue jeopardises workplace safety because the worker cannot concentrate, see clearly, or comprehend situations. The safety of the fatigued worker and his or her co-workers is compromised.
Fatigue and Lifestyle
Though fatigue is caused by health conditions in some cases, it is often the result of lifestyle. For example, some people try to function on inadequate sleep; eat poorly and lack nutrition; or get little exercise. Fatigue may be a symptom of workplace stress or depression. However, substance use is a major cause of fatigue. For example, despite having a reputation for making people more energetic, alcohol depresses the central nervous system and disrupts sleep.
Drugs are also responsible for causing physical and mental fatigue. A good example is cocaine. Cocaine, like alcohol, first creates feelings of alertness and energy, but that is followed by mental fatigue and depression. People who frequently use heroin may often appear sleepy and apathetic, and eventually fatigue develops as a symptom with prolonged drug use. People using meth, ecstasy, marijuana and other illicit drugs experience a similar pattern of heightened alertness followed by sleepiness, with fatigue developing after using the substances over a period of time. Prescription drugs can also lead to fatigue in workers. However, drugs and alcohol also produce fatigue because of the damage they do the user’s body. They can damage liver and kidney functioning, for example, making it more difficult to process nutrients. Regular drug users often fail to eat balanced meals, creating a double nutritional deficit.
Sometimes employees use drugs in the false belief they relieve fatigue. One research project focused on truck drivers and drug use. A powerful motivator for truck driver drug use is overcoming fatigue. During interviews, all of the drivers said their driving skills improved when on drugs because road fatigue was lessoned. When coming off the drugs, their driving skills declined so they took more drugs. The drivers justified their use of drugs because they were used as a fatigue countermeasure.2 This dangerous thinking is harmful to the truck drivers and other drivers on the road, and presents numerous employer risks including increased business liability. The truck drivers are following a similar cycle that other drug users follow. It takes more drugs used more frequently to get high and to overcome the fatigue they are producing. The drug use is justified through faulty thinking.
Managing fatigue is a health and safety duty for the employer, as is maintaining a substance free workplace. The best way to manage health and safety risks caused by fatigue is to address the factors causing the fatigue.3 One way is to evaluate the working conditions and minimising stress as much as possible through scheduling changes or job revisions. Developing a drug and alcohol policy and implementing a drug and alcohol random testing program addresses duty of care on multiple levels when fatigue is caused by substance abuse. Anyone producing a positive test can be directed to treatment; and once substance free, the fatigue is eliminated. Alert employees who are substance free are much more likely to produce their best work.
At Mediscreen (mediscreen.net.au) employers will find experienced consultants who understand the close connection between the level of health and wellness in the workplace and employee substance use. Employers can use Mediscreen’s trained sample collectors and high-tech screening services as a component of a larger health and safety program.
- State Government of Victoria. Fatigue. (27 December 2013). Retrieved January 19, 2014 from Better Health Channel: http://bit.ly/1aCnSSP.
- Naomi Richards BPsych. Fatigue and beyond: Patterns of, and motivations for illicit drug use among long haul. (2004). Thesis submitted to School of Psychology and Counselling, Queensland University of Technology. Retrieved January 19, 2014 at http://bit.ly/1iAz5mv.
- Guide for Managing the Risk of Fatigue at Work. (November 2013). Retrieved January 19, 2014 from Safe Work Australia: http://bit.ly/1g0OpIH.