Study: Workplace Fatigue Common, Costly

Jan. 11, 2007
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers experience fatigue – a problem that costs employers billions in lost productivity, according to a study that is detailed in the January Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Led by Judith Ricci, Sc.D., MS, of Caremark Rx Inc., the researchers analyzed data from a nationwide study of the relationship between health and productivity at work. The study examined the effects of fatigue on health-related absenteeism and "presenteeism," or days the employee was at work but performing at less than full capacity because of health reasons.

Of the nearly 29,000 employed adults interviewed, 38 percent said they had experienced "low levels of energy, poor sleep or a feeling of fatigue" during the past 2 weeks. Total lost productive time averaged 5.6 hours per week for workers with fatigue, compared to 3.3 hours for their counterparts without fatigue.

According to the researchers, the rate of lost productivity for all health-related reasons also was much higher for workers with fatigue: 66 percent, compared with 26 percent for workers without fatigue.

Nine percent of workers with fatigue reported lost productive work time. According to the researchers, fatigue reduced work performance mainly by interfering with concentration and increasing the time needed to accomplish tasks.

With adjustment for other factors, fatigue was more common in women than men, in workers less than 50 years old and in white workers compared with African-Americans. Workers with "high-control" jobs – relatively well-paid jobs with decision-making responsibility – also reported higher rates of fatigue.

Employers Pay a Steep Price for Worker Fatigue

For U.S. employers, fatigue carried overall estimated costs of more than $136 billion per year in health-related lost productivity – $101 billion more than for workers without fatigue. Eighty-four percent of the costs were related to reduced performance while at work, rather than absences.

Health conditions for which fatigue is a major symptom – such as depression or anxiety – accounted for only a small part of the productivity losses. Far more of the costs were thought to result from a wide range of other physical and mental health problems that may occur when fatigue also is present.

Work-Life Programs, Improved Treatment/Assessment Could Help

Previous studies have found that fatigue is a common symptom that is linked to missed work time. The researchers note that the new study is the first to focus specifically on the rate of fatigue in U.S. workers, and its relationship to worker productivity.

Ricci and her team conclude that the results identify fatigue as a major problem in the U.S. work force, and one with a major impact on productivity and costs.

"Interventions targeting workers with fatigue, particularly women, could have a marked positive effect on the quality of life and productivity of affected workers," the researchers conclude. They suggest that companies could offer "work-life programs" to help employees balance their work and personal responsibilities, and take steps to improve assessment and treatment for the large subgroup of workers who have fatigue co-occurring with other health conditions.

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