Workplace Culture

The Yawning of a New Era

By Michelle Rafter

Dec. 8, 2010

America’s workforce is weary. Employees of all ages report feeling fatigued, stressed, burned out or depressed, brought down by a heavier workload, layoffs and an assortment of other adverse conditions workers feel they have little or no power to control.

In a recent study, 81 percent of human resources managers agreed that employee fatigue is a bigger problem than in years past. According to a Workforce Management and WorkForce Software survey of 820 U.S. companies, the major culprits are reduced head count, lack of boundaries between home life and work, second jobs and a culture of “wanting to do it all.”

It’s a perfect storm of employers cutting their workforces as far as they can and workers being stretched as far as they can, says Marc Moschetto, WorkForce Software’s vice president of marketing. “Doing more with less is a pretty unsustainable model.”

In a separate survey of U.S. and Canadian workers, more than half of the 794 people polled reported feeling fatigued at the end of the work day, and at least 40 percent of all age groups said their jobs made them depressed. Yet because of the weak job market, employees are afraid to talk about how tired they are, says Mario Canseco, a vice president at Vision Critical, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based pollster that conducted the survey. “You don’t want to be perceived as someone who’s not doing more than you should, even without a raise, because you don’t want to lose your job.”

Indeed, a secretary at a Sacramento, California, agency—who requested anonymity in this article for fear of being retaliated against for discussing conditions at her workplace—says a state-imposed furlough ordered because of the recession effectively cut 15 percent from her salary. Further, budget cuts reduced her agency’s staff to a skeleton crew, leaving more work for those left behind. “I can’t remember the last time I went out for lunch. I bring my lunch and eat at my desk,” she says.

The secretary says her agency wanted to promote her, but a statewide promotions freeze means she has assumed the new position while remaining in her previous job classification and pay grade. She can’t even go home and pour her troubles out to her husband because he’s in the same boat, she says, working 10-hour days “and coming home late and exhausted.”

The animosity directed at California government workers during a protracted and often ugly state budget process only added to civil servants’ stress levels, the secretary says.

“The constant uncertainty, fights in the court, our employer vilifying us, it’s been awful. It’s that more than the monetary losses that are getting us down.”

Some companies have figured out ways to keep employees’ spirits and energy up during down times. For example, Xonex Relocation, a New Castle, Delaware, relocation services company, says it realizes its employees are under added stress with many people making work-related moves. “Every day we’re dealing with people at their very worst, and the last two years it’s gotten worse,” says Bill Humphrey, the company’s senior vice president and managing director.

As a result, Xonex bars employees from working through their lunch hour or even eating lunch at their desks.

The company has mandated other stress reducers, including the “sunset rule.” Every day before quitting time, the company’s customer-service agents must phone clients with a move update, so there’s no unfinished business hanging over employees’ heads when they go home. The company sells the end-of-day check-in as a special feature for clients, but it’s really about giving employees’ peace of mind, Humphrey says. “I don’t want them going home and picking their kids up from soccer and thinking of the calls they didn’t make. It’s a very beloved thing here. Everyone commits to making those calls.”

Workplace fatigue isn’t new, of course, but it’s receiving more attention as employers keep their overburdened staffs lean. It’s also in the spotlight because of high-profile accidents in recent years caused by sleep-deprived workers as well as federal and industry regulations meant to reduce employee fatigue.

One of those accidents happened in February 2009, when a Colgan Air Inc. crew flying for Continental Airlines crashed outside Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people. Federal aviation investigators blamed the accident on pilot error but said that fatigue hurt performance, too.

Fatigue also has been cited in several high-profile trucking accidents in recent years, including a 2009 accident in which a 76-year-old driver hit several vehicles and killed 10 people on an Oklahoma highway. In its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board said acute sleep loss, shift work and mild sleep apnea contributed to driver fatigue that caused the crash.

In October, the transportation safety board recommended that trucking companies adopt fatigue management programs, which could include such things as screening and treating sleep disorders, scheduling with safety concerns in mind, and installing video and data recorders to collect information in the event of an accident.

Similarly, last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required nuclear power plants to minimize fatigue, including creating policies such as giving employees the right to say they’re too tired to safely perform their work and strictly monitoring hours worked. Facilities that fail to comply risk being shut down by the nuclear agency. “It’s not like turning off your light switch; it’s millions of dollars to go through the power-up and power-down cycle,” says WorkForce Software’s Moschetto, whose company sells software that power plants use for shift scheduling purposes.

Speaking at a national safety convention in October, Occupational Safety and Health Administration assistant secretary of labor David Michaels told reporters that he had no plans to create a standard for employee fatigue but expects companies to address it as part of their injury and illness prevention programs.

In the health care field, there has been a movement afoot to modify the back-to-back shifts that residents, nurses and other medical providers often work.

In recent years, a handful of states have passed laws banning mandatory double shifts for nurses, nurses’ aides and other medical-care providers. Pennsylvania passed such a law in July 2009, five years after a University of Pennsylvania study showed that the risk of medical error was as much as three times higher when a nurse worked a shift of 12½ hours or longer. A separate Pennsylvania Health Department study showed that 13.6 percent of the state’s registered nurses had worked mandatory overtime within two weeks of taking the survey.

Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital got a head start on the state regulation. When the 661-bed facility negotiated a union contract in 2003, it banned mandatory double shifts for its approximately 1,200 nurses. A few years before, Allegheny General had gone through bankruptcy reorganization in the middle of a national nursing shortage. Staffing was down, and RNs were routinely asked to work overtime. “It was a huge issue people were upset about,” says John Ziegler, an RN who has been with Allegheny

General 20 years and was previously president of a union that represents its nurses. “It’s totally disruptive. It doesn’t matter if you know six hours ahead of time. If you have child care issues or standing plans, you have to scramble to arrange around it.”

Banning mandatory overtime and limiting the number of patients monitored at any one time made nurses happier and improved the hospital’s bottom line, says Judy Zedreck, Allegheny General’s vice president of nursing. The year before the 2003 union contract took effect, the hospital had paid temp nursing agencies for 140,000 hours of labor. At least part of that total was to cover for staff nurses dealing with fatigue and burnout. By 2009, the number of temp nurse hours dropped to 34,000, and will total only about 10,000 this year, Zedreck says.

Today, mandatory overtime isn’t even on Allegheny General nurses’ radar, says Zach Zobrist, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the nurses union at Allegheny and 19 other western Pennsylvania hospitals. That’s still not the case at other state hospitals, some of which have called Allegheny for advice on meeting the state regulations banning mandatory double shifts. “Even with the law, they haven’t worked it out yet,” Zobrist says.

Workforce Management, December 2010, p. 3-4Subscribe Now!

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with