Flexi-Fatigue: Exhausted Workers Can’t Switch On At The Office Or Switch Off At Home

Bad flexible work habits during the COVID-19 pandemic have created an outbreak of poor quality sleep and fatigue among Australian office workers, new research from Australia’s leading specialist in workplace fatigue and healthy sleep training, Integrated Safety Support has revealed.

The study of 1,000 Australian “white-collar” workers, found the majority reported their sleep
quality had suffered in the past year, with increased fatigue and an inability to separate work
and home life causing major issues with productivity, particularly for women and under 25s.
Dr Adam Fletcher, an ex-US military sleep researcher with more than 15 years’ experience
training high-performance teams, soldiers, airline pilots, CEOs and safety-critical workers,
said the research shows business leaders needed to take sleep more seriously.

“Sleep issues and fatigue can have a severe impact on employee health and wellbeing,
contributing to burnout and even mental health challenges,” Integrated Safety Support CEO
Dr Adam Fletcher said.

“Unfortunately, not enough business leaders are taking responsibility for creating a healthy
sleep culture with their teams. By supporting flexible work, businesses are essentially setting
up an office in their employees’ homes, so its critical they put the training and processes in
place to create healthy work-life balance.”

“Fatigue in the workplace is a shared risk – both to safety and performance – so it's also a
shared responsibility amongst management and their teams to create conditions that support
healthy sleep, improve productivity and minimise fatigue.”

The latest Sleep Foundation survey found the cost of inadequate sleep in Australia is $66.3
billion, comprising $26.2 billion in financial costs and $40.1 billion in the loss of wellbeing.
The Integrated Safety Support study of Australian white-collar workers revealed:

  • Almost half (48%) said that their sleep quality had declined in the last 12 months
  • More than three in five (63%) reported increased fatigue since returning to the office
  • Almost a third (31%) reported getting below or far below average sleep quality
  • 55% of flexible workers said they find it hard to disconnect from work while at home

The challenge of separating work and home life for flexible workers was stark, with more
than one in three checking emails right before bed (38%), working in their pyjamas (35%)
and even working from their bed (31%). The bad habits didn’t end there either, with more
than two in five working all day at home without going out for fresh air (45%) or skipping
lunch or other meals while working (41%).

“Working in your pyjamas or from the comfort of your bed might seem harmless, but they’re
some of the most common actions that blur the boundaries between work and home life for
flexible workers,” Dr Fletcher said.

“Instead, we recommend our clients maintain healthy morning and bedtime routines, like
manufacturing a commute by taking a morning walk while listening to a podcast, or packing
up your desk and putting your mug away at the end of the day, to signal the end of work.”
“One positive work from home behaviour our research identified was that almost one in three
(31%) said they had taken a nap during the workday. A 10 to 15-minute nap is a great way
to re-energise during work time, delivering measurable benefits, including improved short-
term memory, better performance, improved alertness, and faster reaction times.”

Young workers can’t physically separate work and sleep

The research found a lack of dedicated workspace for workers under 25 had some
significant knock-on effects. They are twice as likely to work from their bed (55%) or
bedroom (56%) than over 25-year-olds (bed 23%, bedroom 28%). Gen Z office workers
were also far more likely to have forgone fresh air (Gen Z 55%, 25+ 42%), skipped meals
(Gen Z 49%, 25+ 39%) or work in their PJs (Gen Z 48%, 25+ 32%).
There were some positive implications for Gen Z’s though, with almost half (47%) taking the
opportunity to nap during the day, compared to over 25-year-olds (28%).
“Working from home can be particularly difficult for younger workers, who often don’t have a
dedicated workspace or live in shared houses with lots of distractions,” Dr Fletcher said.
“We recommend communicating with family and housemates to set clear boundaries around
work and personal time, whether that’s scheduling who’s working from the kitchen table, or
agreeing to take calls in a separate room to keep noise down.”

Women sleeping less while working from home

The study found significantly more female office workers reported below-average sleep
quality (females 35%, males 25%) and sleep quantity than males, with 43% saying they
average less than six hours sleep each night compared to their male counterparts (35%).
Surprisingly, more than one in five female flexible office workers (21%) reported averaging
less than five hours sleep each night – well below the recommended eight hours – and
reported higher levels of fatigue (65%) as a result compared to males (60%).

Alcohol and caffeine sabotaging sleep

Flexible work could also be a factor in the rise in alcohol sales over the last 12 months, with
more than three in five (62%) revealing they drink alcohol in the evening as a way to
disconnect from work and to help fall asleep.

“It’s a common misconception that a nightcap helps you get a good night’s sleep,” Dr
Fletcher said. “It might help you fall asleep, but because alcohol is a diuretic, you’ll need
more toilet wakes during the night and you’ll get less deep restorative sleep as a result.”
The study also found a concerning reliance on caffeine, with more than two-thirds (70%) of
white-collar workers saying they need coffee to be productive and get through the day with
one in five saying (19%) saying they drink it well into the evening as well.

“There’s nothing wrong with caffeine, and everyone has different tolerance levels, but it’s
best kept for when you need a boost of energy and you should aim to have your last one no
later than 4 pm,” Dr. Fletcher said.

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