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September 29, 2010

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Worker fatigue – The recovery proposition

Companies could have a lot to gain if they built in sufficient time at work for employees to recover from tasks, as Mark Cropley and Jason Devereux explain.

It is well-documented that working in a demanding environment can increase the risk of the development of poor health and well-being among individuals. Worker ill health has a major economic and social impact, with the cost of sickness absence to the UK economy estimated at £12 billion a year.1 Although there are myriad contributing factors, one significant mechanism that underlies the relationship between occupation-related demands and ill health is inadequate physical and psychological recovery from work activities.

In simple terms, work recovery may be thought of as the opposite of being exposed to the demands at work. Exertion of effort during work – mental or physical – can lead to psychological or physiological load reactions or strain, which can be experienced as fatigue, stress, or physiological arousal. Once work has been completed, and the individual is no longer exposed to the demands of work, load reactions reverse, which allows recovery to occur.

For recovery to be sufficient it is assumed that individuals must not carry out the same task as when they are working; so, for example, a manual worker should avoid domestic tasks, while an office worker should resist surfing the Internet during the evening. However, sufficient recovery time must also be built into the working day to prevent fatigue and strain during working hours. A tea break and lunch break would typically serve as an ideal recovery activity. Micro-breaks, too, often occur naturally in the work cycle – for example, moving away from the computer screen to collect your print-out.

The importance of recovery time

Research suggests that inadequate recovery may lead to a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, musculoskeletal problems, and sleep disorders, and may contribute to lower productivity and fatigue-related accidents within and outside work. Indeed, at a workshop on recovery in March 2008, held at the University of Surrey, it was argued that lack of recovery from work could be an even more critical contributing factor to health problems than the magnitude and intensity of demand exposure itself. 

For employers, addressing work scheduling to promote worker recovery is a major part of an organisation’s corporate social responsibility. Not only is there a moral and legal duty of care to look after the workforce but there are many other benefits. A healthy workforce, for example, will contribute to productivity and long-term economic development, increase job satisfaction, improve the staff-retention rate, and contribute to the quality of life of the workforce.

The need for action

The recession appears to have had an impact on work practices and recovery. A survey of British managers by the Chartered Management Institute in September last year showed that there were worrying problems in the workforce concerning employee engagement/

morale.2 There were also clear signs of recruitment freezes and compulsory redundancies and the majority of managers expected employment to continue falling. In addition, according to a European-wide opinion poll on safety and health at work, health is likely to be affected by worsening job conditions.3 The survey, carried out by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, showed that 60 per cent of Europeans expect the economic crisis will lead to a worsening of working conditions affecting their health and safety at work.

This evidence points towards the existence of greater work pressure, and the lack of recovery may be causing work disengagement and low morale. As companies restructure and reduce staff, work tends to be redistributed to the remaining workforce. Consequently, many employees are now working longer, and/or taking work home in order to meet targets, etc. In the short term, this is not an issue – we can all work long hours when needed, and periodically this doesn’t really do us any harm. However, pushing ourselves too hard over a sustained period, without sufficient recovery, will have a long-term negative impact on our health, job satisfaction and performance.

When economies start to pick up, many workers will be completely burnt out, while others may start to look for work that is less demanding. As a result, staff turnover and absenteeism will increase, and productivity will suffer. Companies that take action now will therefore be better placed to grow and meet demand when the economy picks up.

What are the main issues?

A workshop was recently conducted at the University of Surrey to examine the concept of recovery and benefits of unwinding from work. A total of 26 representatives from human resources and occupational health — mainly from blue-chip companies — discussed issues and concerns about workload scheduling and performance. Two key concerns arose from the discussion, with companies requesting more information on, firstly, how to set work rest schedules, and, secondly, how to monitor whether employees are getting sufficient recovery.

How to set work-rest schedules

The long-held notion that a break is needed every two to three hours is now dated. Work has intensified, jobs have become more technical, there is substantially more paperwork/reports, and people are working harder for longer periods. Companies need to start examining specific work-scheduling patterns to suit a specific task. It is possible to monitor performance over time during a task, and develop specific guidelines when workers need to take a break for optimal performance and recovery. This type of approach was put into practice at an international pharmaceutical company to help determine the optimal duration of pipette use in their laboratory.

The organisation monitored 30 employees using pipettes over a five-day period by maintaining a work-activity diary and questionnaire. The aim was to determine the maximum time of continual pipette use that could be performed before recovery was needed to overcome tenderness, stiffness and muscle fatigue.

It was clear from the results that a large proportion of workers performed continual operations for too long. With minimal disruption to the workers, the researcher was able to identify the best work-recovery cycle, allowing the workers to perform the same work without discomfort and to a better standard.

Scheduling rest periods between shifts is another important area. Flexible working arrangements are becoming popular among employers, and the previous government established a task force last year to focus on working hours and patterns to promote the use of such arrangements. Flexible working approaches, such as flexi-time, home working, and time off in lieu tend to be options preferred by employees, and they also provide employers with strategies that are easy to adopt and which promote recovery.

Indirect benefits that can be attained by improving worker-recovery arrangements include:

  • improving employee well-being by lowering stress and providing better work/life balance;
  • boosting employee morale, loyalty and discretionary effort by giving workers more choice and control over their hours;  
  • aligning work time with individual peak-productivity time affected by social jet lag (social jet lag relates to differences between our internal biological clock and the official clock time followed by society. Similar to jet lag, social jet lag can create problems with decision-making and health); and
  • improving the quantity and quality of work.

There is also a number of potential direct benefits, including:

  • retaining talented employees with important skills and experience (including networks and contacts, organisational history, and industry knowledge);
  • keeping a successful team intact;
  • saving time and money used to recruit and train new staff;
  • flexibility to meet 24/7 demand;
  • reductions in costs associated with travel, office space and energy requirements; and
  • organisational reputation for taking work/life balance seriously, and attracting top talent.

How to monitor whether employees are getting sufficient recovery

There are various ways in which companies can monitor worker recovery. Schedules and recovery time can be examined during a work shift, at the end of a work shift, or at the end of the working week. Monitoring can be subjective and based on a simple questionnaire, or be based on a more sophisticated and objective approach, which could, for example, harness technology.

Indeed, companies like Visa, Hewlett Packard and eBay have used computer software that monitors a computer user’s risk associated with display screen equipment during a work shift. It also monitors and recommends computer breaks depending on keyboard and mouse-usage patterns. As the workload intensifies, more frequent recovery periods are suggested by the software to prevent fatigue and discomfort. High levels of keyboard and mouse use without proper breaks also automatically increase the risk profile of the user. If such work intensity routinely continues, the system can flag this up to the occupational-health department, at which point a detailed one-to-one assessment could be provided to help prevent the risk of long-term fatigue and injury.

Routinely conducting surveys to monitor recovery after work-shifts and during weekends can also help organisations understand the effects of existing workload patterns, and provide the impetus to promote good practice for worker health. Providing advice for employees on how to promote recovery during evenings in the work week and at weekends may be necessary. Research shows that employees are neither aware of the importance of recovery nor have the skills to optimise it. This is an important area for health-promotion and wellness campaigns.


It is clearly important for companies to develop a well-designed, organised work-scheduling programme that examines job design but also promotes individual recovery. As part of a risk assessment, companies need to start developing specific work-rest policies and put systems in place to monitor work-scheduling and devise appropriate schedules based on user feedback. Flexible working-arrangement policies are also a way to help promote recovery outside of the workplace. These need to be reviewed on a regular basis and tailored to individual needs.

2     Chartered Management Institute (2009): ‘Economic Outlook’, by Professor Lord Eatwell, CMI, Issue 2, October 2009
3     European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2009): Pan-European opinion poll on occupational safety and health –

Dr Mark Cropley is a reader in health psychology at the University of Surrey and Dr Jason Devereux is a human-factors consultant.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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