The Coronavirus COVID-19 is a new infection that is rapidly spreading around the world, affecting millions upon millions of people. Not only are we at risk of catching the virus, it’s having a game-changing effect on the way we do business (or cannot do business for many). So much so that the saying ‘keep calm and carry on’ doesn’t really seem to offer much comfort these days. This is a pandemic of epic proportions.
As an employer, you may be in a situation where you’re having to make business decisions of ‘epic proportions’ on a daily basis. Your people will likely be feeling anxious and stressed, and will be looking to you for guidance and counsel. In addition to operational considerations, such as using technology to facilitate virtual instead of face-to-face meetings, it is just as important to consider how you approach the health & safety of your employees, particularly with respect to fatigue management.
What are your obligations?
Let’s first revisit our fatigue management obligations as an Employer or Person Conducting Business Undertakings (PCBU).
Fatigue is an Occupational Hazard that is required under the Heath & Safety at Work Act 2015 to be managed just like any other hazard in the workplace. As a PCBU you have a duty to eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable; and if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate those risks, to minimise them so far as reasonably practicable.
Your obligations to manage fatigue during this period remain the same, albeit you’re likely to have additional considerations you will need to review to ensure that you have the right controls in place to mitigate the risk. This is especially important if you have staff working remotely from home offices, or undertaking essential services - such as health care workers, transport operators, primary industry workers and utility workers.
A fatigue risk assessment should include a review of:
- Staffing levels - do you have adequate resources available to undertake the amount of work required? If not, how are you scheduling work duties?
- Hours of work - who is monitoring your employees’ hours of work? Is there a new requirement to work overtime or be on-call which will affect their ability to obtain adequate sleep/rest between shifts? People new to on-call work are likely to struggle to adjust quickly - establish robust support for these workers.
- Personal stress - what additional non-work pressures are staff under that may affect their sleep opportunity and therefore impact their ability to undertake their jobs safely? e.g. child care responsibilities or sick family members.
- Sleep - are workers using their downtime to sleep in order to maintain their ‘fitness for duty’?
For those working in an essential service, especially frontline personnel, it is very likely that their sleep will be negatively impacted by the long hours, night shifts, high stress and consecutive work periods without a break. While humans can temporarily operate on limited sleep, it is important to understand that reaction times, performance, communication skills and concentration can deteriorate very quickly - putting themselves, their co-workers and the community at risk.
The irony is that getting enough good quality sleep is what will help to keep their immune system strong, their resilience high, maintain a positive mental health state and their ability to function safely during the day (or shift).
Remember that fatigue impairs you similarly as if you were drunk. Studies show that being awake for 17 hours creates an impairment equivalent to 0.05% Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)1. You need to factor in the hours spent awake, not just the hours spent on duty.
The key factor in managing fatigue is thus ensuring employees are getting enough sleep!
What can you do?
- Provide sleep and fatigue management education so they understand why getting good sleep is important for health & wellbeing.
- Suggest that staff use a smart watch wearable such as a Fitbit to monitor sleep. Self management will be important for all remote workers and those working additional hours.
- Organise alternative transport for the commute to and from work for essential workers who are working extended hours.
- Keep in touch - check in to see what else is going on at home – e.g. juggling child care or looking after a sick family member. Additional pressures may limit sleep opportunities.
- Connect workers to organisations such as Lifeline, HealthLine, EAP, Mortgage Brokers, food delivery services, PEER support and the Mental Health Foundation so that they have people to turn to if things start to overwhelm them.
Share these ideas to help staff manage their sleep & fatigue:
- Be mindful of what you read - Limit the social media exposure and choose credible sources for COVID-19 information.
- Relax and unwind at the end of the day so that you can go to sleep less stressed. Try mindfulness apps to help promote falling asleep.
- Look after your body - Establish a good daily routine and try to stick to it. Get outside and use natural daylight to help keep your circadian rhythm in sync. Too much screen time means we are likely to have too much exposure to blue light which disrupts our melatonin production (sleep hormone), making it harder to switch off at the end of the day.
- Don’t set your home office up in the bedroom - Or work while in bed! Have a designated space that is used for work only. If you can set up an office in a spare room or garage, even better - that way you can still ‘leave work’ at the end of the day.
- Keep connected - Set up chat groups so colleagues can stay in touch. Have virtual Friday night drinks or themed fancy dress days - anything that keeps spirits and connectivity high.
- Health & Safety first - Remind workers that working from home also comes with some H&S obligations. Ask employees to provide an audit of their workspace at home (i.e. power cords across the living room floor might be deemed a trip hazard!)
- Investigate food bags and food delivery services - Set up online grocery shopping so that workers are not using their precious time between shifts waiting in queues at the supermarket.
- Get enough sleep! Don’t sacrifice sleep for another Netflix episode - sleep is always going to be one of your best weapons against COVID-19!
- Dawson, D. et al. (1997) Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature 388,235.