Tired employees wreak havoc at work

Feb 12 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Legal errors, road accidents, confidential material being sent out by email, workers losing their temper with colleagues, medical mishaps, important information being incorrectly deleted from files, and safety procedures being breached have all been caused by stressed and over-tired employees.

A survey of 1200 people carried out by the Work Life Balance Centre and Keele University has found that work-related Illness has reached record levels with two thirds of people seeking help for their medical problems. The most common symptoms were irritability, fatigue, a lack of concentration and sleeplessness.

But despite this, more than 60 per cent of workers say they enjoy the challenges of their job.

The Keele research is the latest to reveal an endemic culture of long hours and excessive workloads. Less than a third of employees actually work their contracted or expected hours; most work longer. One in ten respondents worked more than 70 hours a week.

One in five people said that they never took a lunch break, while only a third said that they managed to have a lunch break every day. Four out of ten said that they do not take their full annual leave entitlement,

Almost everyone in the survey took work home. For most respondents (41 per cent) this involved less than five hours additional work, although four per cent worked an additional 20 hours a week at home.

Flexible working options were available to well over half of workers and the vast majority of employers (more than 90 per cent) were sympathetic to requests for time off or to reschedule work around caring or family responsibilities.

Flexible start and finish times were available to 63 per cent of respondents and the option to work at home to 57 per cent.

Help with workload planning and clear communication on objectives and targets, were available in only 37 per cent of workplaces.

Around 1 in 10 respondents were offered no work life balance support at all.

But when asked to detail the biggest potential improvements to their current working situation, the answer was not more work-life balance initiatives but “additional resources/staff” (46 per cent) and “better communication between management and staff” (41 per cent). Better workload management and improved organisational practices– both relatively easy fixes - are clearly a key part of the work-life equation.

Although almost all the respondents to the survey claimed that the way they work has made them ill in some way, the report points out that “the word stress has virtually lost its meaning and is now used synonymously with busy.”

The main symptoms complained of were fatigue (47 per cent) irritability (41 per cent), sleeplessness (40 per cent) and poor concentration (34 per cent). An increasing number of people are also seeking help for work-related illness. Some two thirds of those who say that they had suffered work related illness had sought help for it.

Nevertheless, if these complaints do not make for evidence of a serious problem, the catalogue of errors committed by tired workers are a compelling argument to even the most sceptical that things cannot continue as they have done.

Almost all the respondents to the survey - 95 per cent of - said that they had made an error at work due to fatigue, some of which were life-threatening.

Among the errors recorded were:

  • Loss of temper with colleagues or manager
  • Lost data and documents
  • Cases of drug administration error
  • Poor man management (cost over £10,000)
  • Missed crucial fact in a grant application (cost over £10,000)
  • Failing to follow VAT accounting procedures correctly (£1001 - £5000)
  • Forgetting to cancel a contract in time (cost more than £10,000)
  • Forwarding confidential emails
  • Almost caused an accident on motorway.
  • Fell asleep at the wheel but awoke before any accident occurred
  • Ran a passenger train onto the wrong line (cost £501 - £1000)
  • Mishandled toxic chemical
  • Missed safety issues that could have resulted in injury to people.
  • Mixing up of infectious waste: breach of containment (cost over £10,000).

All of which begs the question of why, if flexible working is already so commonplace and successful, do we still have so many stress related problems? Is the current approach toward work-life balance really addressing all of the issues?

A copy of the full report is available from www.24-7survey.co.uk