Fatigue in the Workplace: A Special Issue of Consulting Psychology Journal
by: Robert B. Kaiser, Editor-in-Chief
For the past 10 years, the American Psychological Association has conducted the Stress in America™ survey to examine how stress affects the health and well-being of adults in the US. The most recent study, which surveyed more than 3,500 adults in August 2016, found that almost two-thirds of respondents agree either “strongly” or “somewhat” that periodically “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is important for their mental health. However, only about a quarter of those who agreed actually said they did so. Indeed, fatigue, sleep challenges, and burnout are just a few outcomes from our “always on” society with its relentless workload demands for employees at all levels.
Fatigue can be defined as extreme tiredness, typically resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. When thinking about fatigue at work, we think of it as feeling tired, having low energy, or being sleepy as a result of prolonged mental or physical work, extended periods of stress, anxiety, or inadequate sleep. Some people attribute that fatigue to individual issues, such as the inability to say no, create balance, or temper a Type-A drive to achieve. Others attribute it to changes in work habits as a result of technological advances. And still others attribute it to organizational structures and job demands. It appears that everyone is partially correct.
Consultants who want to help clients with fatigue are therefore in a difficult position, needing a more integrated understanding of its causes and how to help. A member of the CPJ editorial review board, Jennifer Deal, proposed the idea of a special issue of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Researchin order to promote such an understanding. She worked with Kenneth Nowack, an associate editor of the journal, to recruit thought leaders who could represent a broad understanding of workplace fatigue. I think they have succeeded brilliantly.
The special issue, just published, seeks to answer two core questions: What are the causes of workplace fatigue, and what can be done to reduce it? The papers address these questions from different perspectives, and they provide recommendations about actions for individuals, consultants, human-resources professionals, leaders, and organizations. Each of the six articles explores important aspects of fatigue in the workplace today. The following is a summary of each papers.
(You can also check out this podcast to hear the guest editors talk about the special issue, the individual articles, and how they come together.)
Sleep, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal effectiveness: Natural bedfellows
Kenneth Nowack investigates sleep as a primary cause of fatigue in leaders. He looks at the relationships among fatigue, lack of sleep, and emotional intelligence. This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that too little sleep results in lower social and emotional competence, even after controlling for stress level in leaders. Lower quality and quantity of sleep are shown to impair leadership effectiveness, directly affecting organizational productivity, retention, engagement, and job satisfaction. Nowack also offers specific recommendations for both practitioners and organizations to address sleep and fatigue issues for employees.
Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Exploring leaders’ sleep patterns, problems, and attitudes
Given the relationships among fatigue, sleep, and leadership effectiveness, Elena Svetieva, Cathleen Clerkin, and Marian Ruderman examine the primary barriers to sleep as exhibited by 384 leaders, and they describe beliefs about success, productivity, and the necessity for sleep that underpin leaders’ sleep patterns. Importantly, the results from their study confirm that today’s workers are sleep-deprived as a result of work demands and the inability to detach from them. The authors also suggest strategies individuals and organizations can use to improve sleep to help combat fatigue.
Solution-focused cognitive–behavioral coaching for sustainable high performance and circumventing stress, fatigue, and burnout
Anthony Grant discusses the effects of stress from high-performance work cultures on fatigue. He describes a method of solution-focused cognitive–behavioral coaching to reduce stress-related fatigue, and he advocates focusing on cultures with high performance and high well-being, which he indicates is where sustainable high performance can be found. A notable contribution of this paper is his presentation of a “Performance/Well-being Matrix” framework consisting of two orthogonal dimensions: (1) performance (high/low) and (2) well-being (high/low). This framework can help coaches, consultants, and organizations create high-performing employees who experience high well-being.
Productivity loss due to mental- and physical-health decrements: Distinctions in research and practice
Matthew J. Grawitch, Jessica S. Waldrop, Kaitlyn R. Erb, Paul M. Werth, and Sarah N. Guarino also address the association between individual well-being and performance at work. Their paper reports on two studies that examined the potential differences in productivity loss that occur due to mental-health and physical-health decrements. Although a moderate relationship exists between the factors, the authors demonstrate that each contribute uniquely to the explanation of important indicators of well-being (i.e., satisfaction with work-life balance, emotional exhaustion, work engagement, depression, life satisfaction, and turnover intentions). Consequently, two very different types of strategies and techniques are needed to alleviate performance decrements due to physical versus mental health issues.
Workplace fatigue is a systems problem
Alec Levenson (2017) focuses primarily on the organizational level of workplace fatigue. He presents the perspective that organizational systems are a substantial part of what causes fatigue, and he describes the levels of systems that can affect it. The article is valuable for its summary of a systemic view of fatigue, including diagnostics around job design, organization design, and the organization’s strategy to address it. He concludes with recommendations for addressing systemic issues at different levels of analysis that can cause and exacerbate fatigue.
Finding solutions to the problem of burnout
Finally, Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research (in fact, she coined the term “burnout”) also focuses on systems-level issues and discusses the tendency to look at the individual level to address fatigue and stress, a perspective she has concluded after a career of study that only reveals part of the picture. A key strength of this article is its delineation of three important critical issues surrounding job burnout and interventions aimed at addressing it within organizations: the psychology-centric focus of burnout, fixing the person versus fixing the job, and new ideas about solutions. Although fatigue and stress are certainly felt at the individual level, Maslach explains why individual-level approaches are inadequate for reducing fatigue, stress, and burnout. Instead, she says organizations need to look at these issues as results of a system rather than defects in an individual and then provides a framework that is complementary to the one provided by Levenson in the previous article.
Each of these articles provides key insights, but taken together they offer an important conceptual and practical contribution to our understanding of workplace fatigue. Our hope is that this special issue can help practitioners lead the way in helping organizations address and effectively manage fatigue that has risen to high levels, contributing of problems that have proven costly to the bottom line and to quality of life for many employees.
Access electronic copies of the articles in APA’s psycnet database using the links in the article titles above; or access the entire special issue here:
LINK TO ENTIRE SPECIAL ISSUE: Fatigue in the Workplace
Tired of being fatigued? Introduction to the Special Issue <>
Kenneth Nowack & Jennifer J. Deal
(Access to each focal article requires a subscription, or you can purchase individual articles; the entire special issue can be purchased for one low price in electronic/PDF format or in hard copy.)
Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research publishes evidence-based articles that advance the body of professional knowledge and expertise for providing psychologically based services to improve organizations and the people who work in them. It is a unique peer-reviewed journal; CPJ articles meet scientific standards for rigor and support but are also readable, practical, and actionable.