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Fatigue in the Public Sector Workplace: Risks and Solutions

Last summer, we wrote a report for UKG about the increasingly onerous issue of state and local employees who -- for a variety of reasons -- are thoroughly worn out, a situation which can result in a variety of problems, including unplanned and unexplained absences, risks to worker safety, drops in performance, and declining levels of customer satisfaction. You can download the full report by clicking here.

The issues of workplace fatigue haven't become any less important since the release of the report. Heightened turnover in recent years, hiring difficulties, stress, and an onslaught of overtime requirements, mean that more and more public sector workers are experiencing its sometimes dangerous consequences. As a result, public sector managers are becoming more attuned to the issue and are looking for ways to address its root causes.

"Increasingly, both public and private sector organizations are pinpointing a range of negative impacts on workers who aren’t getting enough rest. . . “If an employee is fatigued, productivity will go down. You have a greater chance of mistakes at work and a greater chance of someone hurting themselves,” says Talona Felix, UKG workforce business consultant.

"There’s something of a chicken and egg syndrome here. For individuals who work in 24-7 operations – which include a great many government functions that must run around the clock ‒ fatigue and related burnout increase retention problems, which then puts more pressure on remaining staff.

“Every day we would lose more people than we could hire and a lot of it was just because our staff burned out,” says Betsy Thomas, director of human resources at the Georgia Department of Corrections. In exit surveys, held when individuals left their jobs, the department heard two major complaints. One focused on their relationship with supervisors and the other was that they were not able to take enough days off.

"Though issues of fatigue are gaining increased and merited attention in recent years, as far back as 2000, Dr. Bryan Vila authored a book called Tired Cops, written under a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. In it, he contended that “police managers and leaders need to develop work-hour standards and procedures to minimize fatigue and ensure alertness, develop and implement thorough fatigue management plans, establish permanent employee/manager fatigue task forces to monitor compliance with related policies and regulations, and identify new problems and opportunities for ensuring officer alertness on the job,” according to a DOJ synopsis. . .

"The degree to which people aren’t able to get enough sleep has been increasing. In a nine-year study of self-reports of sleep duration from the National Health Interview Survey, Ball State University analyzed sleep duration for 150,000 working adults and found that the number who got seven hours of sleep or less had increased from 30.9% in 2010 to 35.6% in 2018.

"That study found that poor sleep quality was particularly common in a number of professions that are part of the public sector, including healthcare, protective services, and transportation.

"Studies of police officers, for example, have shown that a high level of stress makes the fatigue the officers face from other factors even more acute. Problems can be particularly vexing for individual employees whose work hours vastly exceed the norm.

"By examining the data, Felix has found extreme examples of employees who work many consecutive days without a break — such as one worker who put in a numbingly high 265 days on the job without a single holiday or weekend off. Though this is certainly extreme, her study of workplace data reveals plentiful instances of public sector employees who work long shifts and come back seven hours later to begin again. “If you only take seven hours between shifts, how do you get enough sleep and then also attend to the other aspects of life — eating, having time with family, sleeping, and hopefully showering?” she asks."


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