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The Dangers of Brain Fatigue

Jan 13, 2021 11:17:04 AM / by DEKRA

The science is indisputable. All three types of fatigue, whether physical (body), mental (mind), or neurocognitive (brain), impair human performance. The most insidious and dangerous form in workplaces is neurocognitive fatigue, which is caused by insufficient Delta-wave or deep, restorative sleep that the human brain requires every 24 hours. The particular parts of the brain that suffer from this type of fatigue are the four lobes of the cerebral cortex—the parts of our brain that control cognitive processes such as pattern recognition, auditory discrimination, visual processing, memory, speech, reasoning, planning ahead, problem solving, and decision making.

The primary root causes of this brain fatigue are insufficient amounts of and/or poor quality of sleep in either a given 24-hour period (acute fatigue) or across multiple days (cumulative fatigue). The likelihood of such sleep deprivation is also heightened by circadian rhythm disturbances, which are common among night-shift, early-morning shift, rotating-shift, and extended-daywork employees across all occupational classes, including salaried supervisors and engineers.

Root Causes of Fatigue

Many people in industry leadership believe that the root cause of fatigue risks is primarily employee lifestyle choices. Employees who “burn the candle at both ends” and fail to use the rest time available to them are considered to be the root of the problem. But there are two even more deeply-rooted causes of workplace fatigue that have to be addressed. One is linked to the business side of industry operations, and the other is linked to the cultural side.

In an effort to curb labor costs and be “lean,” financial managers have created a vicious circle in many process industries and manufacturing plants. Most have hired only the base headcount needed to cover the recognized job positions across the 24/7 hours of operation. Rarely have they planned enough human capacity to cover employee absences, turnover, or special projects and stretch assignments. As a result, there frequently are not enough qualified workers at the site level to prevent overtime levels from increasing. In turn, the more overtime hours worked by the current labor pool, the higher the resulting sickness absences and staff turnover.

More absent employees increase the overtime and sleep deprivation levels for the remaining workforce, further accelerating the vicious circle. In the future, potential hidden costs of the base-labor staffing model should be factored into the equation, including elevated turnover, safety incidents, and error rates along with overtime costs.

Another deeply rooted cause of cognitive fatigue can be found in the organizational culture created by leaders and their vision. Like surgeons who are trained to operate on little sleep, many leaders believe it is both possible and desirable to function on as little sleep as possible. This mindset is flawed. Just because an employee survived one night or 1000 nights with little or no sleep and still managed to complete tasks the next day, does not mean that his work was error-free. People cannot accurately judge their own performance when they are in a state of brain fatigue, and they all too easily reinforce their own sense of infallibility.

Fatigue Risk Mitigation

Because there are multiple root causes of the sleep deprivation that results in neurocognitive fatigue, including undiagnosed sleep disorders, high overtime levels, life status (e.g., parents of newborns), and some work schedules, companies committed to mitigating fatigue risks need a multi-component FRMS—Fatigue Risk Mitigation System. Like any management system, it is crucial for an FRMS to be:

  • Strategically-aligned
  • Scientifically-sound
  • Data-informed
  • Risk-focused
  • Performance-based
  • For fatigue risk management, the system also must be fully integrated into the operating fabric and the culture of all departments that are subject to overtime work hours, whether hourly or salaried. Unless or until operating unit leaders embrace the fundamental value of an FRMS, the critical risk of human fatigue will continue to present a danger in today’s workplaces.
  • Learn more about the risks of brain fatigue in the workplace. Download the full white paper Brain Fatigue: The Hidden Danger.


Topics: Serious Injury and Fatality, safety, organizational safety, DEKRA, workplace injuries, Crisis, Workplace safety, Driver Safety, Road Safety, safety leadership, fatigue


Written by DEKRA

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