What Is Work Fatigue and How Can You Fight It
Anyone who has ever spent their days drudging away on a keyboard, just counting the seconds until they are able to head home, knows that the experience of work fatigue is undeniable. This compounding mental, physical, and emotional fatigue, often brought about by our desk-bound modern job environments can be simply inconvenient for some people, and entirely debilitating for others.
There is good news, though.
Work fatigue has begun to be taken much more seriously, both in the workplace and clinical research. Thanks to this, real-world actionable advice to prevent it from becoming disruptive to your personal life, work productivity, and your job as a whole exists, and we have curated some of the most important aspects of it here. Rest assured, fatigue and strain you feel at the end of each workday are real and more widespread than you might think. Luckily, our advice to help prevent it is simple, straightforward, and you can begin implementing (at least parts of it) right away!
What Causes Workplace Fatigue?
There are, almost certainly, many factors contributing to that extreme tiredness and reduced functional capacity that you often experience during, and at the end of your workday.
Some common causes of workplace fatigue include:
- Poor sleep quality and generally dysregulated circadian rhythms.
- Not enough downtime outside of work, caused by working long hours or poor time management (limiting our ability to overcome the mounting levels of fatigue).
- Improper light environment (too much artificial light, not enough time outside).
- Work schedules are often out of alignment with when our circadian rhythms allow us to be most alert, focused, and motivated (known as our productivity curve).
It is because of this diverse etiology that scientists haven’t been able to exclusively implicate work fatigue with any specific cause(s). This less-than enjoyable experience, can actually be broken down further into three separate classifications: physical, mental, and emotional work fatigue.
You have no doubt experienced each of these unique strains at some point – especially if you are entrenched in our modern work environments, and expectations on a daily basis. Each of these three forms of fatigue can reduce your ability to perform tasks that are required of you at work. Physical and mental work fatigue can be enough of a problem by themselves (by inhibiting your ability to perform both physical and cognitive tasks, respectively). But emotional fatigue appears to be of particular concern as it can be more broadly depleting and places a drain on resources, both physical and mental, as well as emotional.
Fatigue is generally more complicated to overcome than just being tired. This state can be unrelenting, and if left unchecked it will become a nearly constant experience where you lack motivation, the ability to concentrate, and it seems like your energy levels will never return. This is a scary place to be, as many of you can probably attest.
The Dangers of Work Fatigue
Besides just being inconvenient and unpleasant, unmanaged work fatigue can have real, detrimental effects on your professional and personal life. If left unchecked, workplace fatigue will almost inevitably lead to you feeling dissatisfied with your work, cause you to withdraw from coworkers, degrade your ability to perform your job well, and all of this places a drain on various resources for both you and your employers.
Outside of working hours, the consequences for ignoring the signs of mounting workplace fatigue are no less dire. Because fatigue is accumulative, you simply won’t be able to leave it all behind you once you leave the office. Those who have become burned out at work are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, withdraw from family and friends, express unfounded anger towards loved ones, make poor financial decisions, and generally take out their frustrations in less-than productive ways.
As fatigue continues unmanaged, you can expect your mental, physical, and emotional health to continue dissipating right along with it. Our immune system is especially impacted by psychological stress and fatigue – leading to decreases in immune function and an increased likelihood of developing disease or dysfunction. As you can see, there are legitimate and serious negative consequences to the very real problem of work fatigue. It wouldn’t be fair however, to present this problem without providing some actionable steps to prevent workplace fatigue from disrupting your life.
How To Fight Fatigue At Work
Luckily, there is a lot that we can do to prevent this mounting problem from impacting our mental, social, and physical health. A lot of which is simply remembering to do the small things like prioritizing sleep, moving more, and taking a break (when we already know we should). Here are a few key ways to start fixing the burned-out feeling you commonly experience during, or at the end of every workday.
Shake Up Your Schedule
We all know some people are night owls, while others have to be in bed before 9 or they will be in full zombie-mode the next day. This disparity is at least partially explained by differences in what is known as “chronotypes”.
Discovering for yourself where you fall on this spectrum can allow you to hone in your most important work, and most demanding tasks within those hours of the day in which you will be most productive. Have an energy lull every afternoon around 2 or 3? Capitalize on this fact by making that the time of day that you work on less important tasks such as answering emails or organizing. Whenever possible, save your most cognitively-demanding tasks for the time of day when you are able to be most productive. Aligning your work with what is known as your “productivity curve” can allow your work day to flow much more easily, and reduce the likelihood of you feeling overwhelmed or burned out.
Focus On Work/Life Balance
American workers are in the office, or otherwise on the clock significantly more than any other developed country – 140 hours more annually than Japanese workers and 260 hours more every year than our friends across the pond in the UK.
Part of this is due to our cultural gravitation towards production and advancing ourselves socioeconomically, and the rest may be due to social pressures to maintain employment. Though it seems obvious to schedule time outside of work, this is rarely done in America.
Taking time to take care of yourself should be at the forefront of your mind if you are hoping to prevent, or begin reversing the ill-effects of workplace fatigue. Research has shown that individuals experiencing burnout had higher rates of depression, insomnia, hospitalization for mental disorders, and much more. Further than just planning time off though, taking care of yourself means eating right, sleeping right (more on this in a moment), exercising, and generally focusing on what is most important for human health.
Take More Breaks
American office workers are notorious for working incessantly. People worldwide are afforded many breaks throughout the day, something our workplace culture has apparently forgotten about long ago.
Swedish workers, for instance, have an extended break during the workday called a fika – where they often have coffee and socialize. Our collective propensity for gluing ourselves to our desks continues during lunch time as well. Only an estimated 1 out of every 5 workers in the United States takes time away from their desk, and their work during lunch time. This is in stark contrast to other countries where lunch nearly never takes place in front of a computer screen.
To tap into the increased productivity, reduced fatigue, and enhanced well-being that workers in other countries seem to have found, simply plan to take breaks more often. Even standing, or going for a short walk, which can take only a few moments can do wonders for your circulation and thus helps improve your overall health. Schedule more breaks at work, then hold yourself to it.
Use Natural Energy-Boosters
There is a reason why the line at Starbucks is always long, and their drive-thru is always full. Caffeine works phenomenally well at suppressing fatigue, increasing alertness, and making you generally feel better. What caffeine does not do well is allow for proper sleep, and circadian rhythm function. Excessive caffeine consumption will disrupt sleep – leading to increased fatigue, increased caffeine intake to compensate, and the vicious cycle continues.
Because of the potential for sleep disruption, it is wise to look elsewhere for a natural way to boost your energy levels whenever possible. There are quite a few options for you to try next time you feel that afternoon slump.
- Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, and rhodiola rosea are two common tools for improving energy, balance, and focus without being stimulating.
- Stimulants such as maca, guarana, ginseng, and bacopa monnieri are excellent options to improve energy and cognitive function without many of the potential side effects of coffee or other sources high in caffeine.
- Other natural energy boosters such as Vitamin B12, CoQ10, and tools to improve sleep such as CBD, magnesium, melatonin, or valerian root can work wonders for helping to manage fatigue.
Optimize Your Workplace
With all the talk about optimization in the health and wellness space, it is curious that not much emphasis is placed on optimizing your workspace.
Creating a designated workspace allows you to focus on your work, and less on distractions. This has become increasingly important as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary for many of us to work from home. Not having a clear separation between your working space, and your living space can blur the lines between work and rest, leading to further fatigue and disruption.
Beyond just creating a designated workspace, you can set yourself up for success by managing the kinds and amount of light you are staring down. The artificial blue light from our LED computer screens is stimulating, but incessantly so. Whenever possible, working outside in natural light, dimming or filtering the light on your devices, and introducing different light sources such as red or near-infrared can work wonders in the battle against harmful light exposure.
We don’t need (or want) the perpetual stress hormone release we experience when our eyes are locked onto a computer for hours on end. Managing your light exposure is absolutely vital for protecting our health in the 21st century, not just for managing work fatigue.
Improve Your Sleep
Much about our modern lives’ inhibits our ability to get enough quality sleep. Stress, Netflix, stimulants, light, Instagram, and much more seem to be fundamentally opposed to us getting to bed on time, sleeping well, and waking up full of energy like we should do every day.
We have written extensively about how to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep, but we can sum up the importance of it for managing work fatigue very concisely:
Getting enough (quality) sleep is the number one tool you have available to manage fatigue of any kind.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t get enough sleep to support their overall health – let alone to be able to thrive. The reasons for your sleep (either duration or quality) being less-than optimal can be entirely unique to you, and so can the plan to fix the situation. But what matters is that you actively experiment and find ways to improve it before work fatigue develops into the mental, physical, and emotional effects that we are all hoping to avoid.
Workplace fatigue and the ill-effects it can bring about are nothing to scoff at. Taking the time to take care of yourself, and managing the diverse sources of friction in the workspace that can make matters worse are two excellent and obvious areas which you can start making meaningful improvements in your mental, physical, and emotional health.