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  • Occupational Fatigue—New Insights on Causes and Consequences

    Review Shows Mental and Physical Toll of Workplace Fatigue

    Sleep loss and poor working conditions are the most important causes of occupational fatigue—which can impair mental and physical performance with the potential for serious errors and injuries, reports a review and update in the October Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

    Matthew Hallowell, PhD, and colleagues of University of Colorado at Boulder analyzed previous research to develop a "comprehensive systems model" of the interrelated causes and consequences of occupational fatigue. Fatigue, which may be acute or chronic, is defined as "a decreased ability to perform activities at the desired level due to lassitude or exhaustion of mental and/or physical strength."

    Based on available data, the "major drivers" of fatigue were sleep deprivation and factors in the work environment—such as noise, vibration, and temperature. These causes could all interact with other factors, such as increased work load and long work hours.

    The most significant consequences of fatigue were short-term degradation in cognitive (thinking) and physical functioning. Illnesses, human error, and injuries also occurred to a lesser extent. Evidence suggested that some consequences of fatigue can make other outcomes worse, reinforcing fatigue and leading to a "downward cycle."

    Occupational fatigue affects more than 20 percent of the US working population, resulting in more than $136 billion in lost productivity and health care costs each year. Unfortunately, the problem of fatigue may draw attention only after major accidents—the researchers cite the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Exxon Valdez disasters.

    Although there has been considerable research on occupational fatigue, fewer studies have been done to replicate and validate those findings. Dr. Hallowell and colleagues hope their model will help occupational health professionals and researchers to better understand the interrelated causes and consequence of fatigue. They point to some key areas for further research, including the association between work relationships and fatigue.

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    Citation — Techera U, Hallowell M, Stambaugh N, Littlejohn R. Causes and consequences of occupational fatigue: meta-analysis and systems model. J Occup Environ Med. 2016;58(10):961-73.

    About the Author — Dr. Hallowell may be contacted for interviews at matthew.hallowell@colorado.edu.

    About ACOEM — ACOEM (www.acoem.org), an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

    About the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine — The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (www.joem.org) is the official journal of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edited to serve as a guide for physicians, nurses, and researchers, the clinically oriented research articles are an excellent source for new ideas, concepts, techniques, and procedures that can be readily applied in the industrial or commercial employment setting.