The Impact of Stress and Fatigue on Workplace Safety

We explore a variety of impactful approaches to mitigate the risks of stress and fatigue on workplace safety, including hazard mitigation, stress alleviation, and educational initiatives tailored to the construction industry.
November 8, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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The construction industry, while critical for economic growth and infrastructure development, often grapples with elevated workplace safety concerns.

A startling statistic reveals that those working more extended hours (exceeding 8 hours per day) face injury rates one third higher than their counterparts who work shorter shifts. Moreover, the industry's workforce finds itself contending with the pervasive issue of stress and burnout, as indicated by 46% of respondents in a recent Procore survey.

These alarming trends underscore the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to enhance workplace safety and mitigate factors such as fatigue and stress that pose significant risks to construction workers.

In this post, we delve into a range of effective measures to reduce these threats, encompassing hazard reduction, stress management, and education aimed at fostering safer, healthier, and more productive work environments.

Understanding Stress

Stress is a natural physiological response to various external or internal pressures and challenges. It can be categorised into two main forms:

Positive stress

Often referred to as "eustress." This is a beneficial, short-term form of stress that can motivate and enhance performance.

Chronic stress

A persistent, harmful condition resulting from prolonged exposure to stressors, leading to adverse physical and psychological effects.

While eustress can be positive, helping us to achieve our goals, chronic stress has the capacity to accumulate and infiltrate both one's professional and personal life, creating an unrelenting burden.

For instance, the constant pressure and demands of a high-stress job can lead to exhaustion, making it challenging to unwind and relax at home. The stress of meeting deadlines and managing responsibilities at work may spill over into personal relationships, causing tension and conflicts.

Conversely, personal issues, such as financial troubles or family problems, can weigh heavily on an individual, making it difficult to focus and perform effectively in the workplace. Over time, this interplay between work-related and personal stressors can lead to a vicious cycle of chronic stress, affecting an individual's wellbeing and ability to perform at work.

Recognizing the Signs of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can manifest itself in both observable signs and symptoms that may go unnoticed by others. When it comes to observable signs of chronic stress, individuals may exhibit:

  • Frequent mood swings
  • Visible signs of tiredness (e.g., yawning)
  • Unplanned or frequent absences from work
  • Declines in work performance (e.g., procrastination, a lack of enthusiasm, reduced productivity)
  • Frequent arguments or disagreements with coworkers, friends, or family members

Conversely, individuals may also grapple with subtle, less observable symptoms of chronic stress that may include:

  • Constant states of anxiety and worry
  • Difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep
  • Stress-related physical ailments (e.g., tension headaches, digestive problems)
  • Significant fluctuations in appetite, leading to overeating or undereating
  • A decline in self-confidence and feelings of self-worth
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or recalling information

Understanding these signs, whether they are overt or covert, is essential for addressing chronic stress and implementing effective coping strategies.

Chronic Stress and Workplace Safety

In the context of the construction industry, the impact of chronic stress on workplace safety cannot be underestimated. The demands of this physically and mentally demanding field, coupled with the potential for long hours and high-pressure situations, make construction workers particularly susceptible to chronic stress.

Chronic stress can lead to increased levels of irritability, mood swings, and anxiety, which can adversely affect communication and teamwork on construction sites. Disrupted sleep patterns and persistent worry can result in fatigue, a significant contributor to workplace accidents and injuries.

Reduced concentration and cognitive impairments associated with chronic stress can also result in poor decision-making, further increasing the likelihood of accidents and safety lapses.

Moreover, the physical toll of chronic stress can have long-term health implications for construction workers. Over time, these physical issues can reduce an individual's overall stamina and resilience, potentially leading to a higher risk of accidents due to diminished hand-eye coordination and slower reflexes.

Reducing the Risk of Chronic Stress on Workplace Safety

Chronic stress in the workplace can significantly impact employee wellbeing and safety. This section outlines a multifaceted approach addressing individual, team, and organisational factors to mitigate chronic stress risks, fostering a safer and more productive worksite.

Identify and manage stressors

Identifying and managing stressors is a fundamental step in preventing chronic stress. Work-related stressors can manifest in various forms, such as excessive workloads, interpersonal conflicts, or communication issues.

To address these, consider conducting regular workload assessments to ensure job demands are reasonable and manageable. Create clear communication channels for employees to express their concerns and promptly address interpersonal conflicts to prevent them from escalating.

Promote work-life balance

Promoting a healthy work-life balance is essential for mitigating chronic stress risks. Chronic stress often arises when employees struggle to juggle their work responsibilities with their personal lives.

To address this, consider supporting flexible work arrangements that allow employees to better manage their time and responsibilities. Additionally, limit excessive overtime and encourage employees to take regular time off to recharge.

Provide mental health support

Offering mental health support is a critical component of preventing chronic stress. Stress can take a toll on an individual's mental wellbeing, and it's essential to provide resources for employees to cope effectively.

Consider providing access to counselling services, stress management workshops, and resources that empower employees to manage stress and maintain their mental health.

Develop stress-reducing policies

Developing policies that specifically address stress reduction is a proactive way to create a safer work environment. These policies can set guidelines for respectful workplace behaviour, establish stress reduction programs, and even include provisions for mental health days.

By formalising these policies, you send a clear message to your employees that their wellbeing is a priority and that the organisation is committed to reducing stress-related risks.

Implement stress risk assessment

Conducting regular stress risk assessments is a key element of managing and reducing chronic stress. Such assessments help detect potential issues before they escalate, allowing for proactive intervention.

By monitoring the workplace for signs of chronic stress and regularly assessing the effectiveness of your stress reduction efforts, you can stay ahead of potential problems and continuously improve your approach.

Educate the workforce

Educating employees about stress, its symptoms, and how to manage it is vital for creating a stress-aware culture. Provide information on stress-related symptoms, resilience-building techniques, and your organisation's commitment to employee wellbeing.

You might also encourage open discussions about stress management, and share resources and tools to help employees better cope with workplace stress. These discussions can seamlessly integrate into regular safety reviews, aided by tools such as the Scratchie app.

Understanding Fatigue

Fatigue extends beyond mere sensations of tiredness and drowsiness. According to Safe Work Australia, fatigue represents a state of mental and/or physical depletion that significantly diminishes an individual's capacity to perform tasks in a safe and efficient manner.

Fatigue is most prone to arising not only when an individual is excessively burdened by work, but when experiencing irregular sleep patterns or facing disruptions to their circadian rhythms. Indeed, evidence is growing that getting adequate sleep is a basic need for life and health, and is as important as good nutrition and exercise.

Recognising the Signs of Fatigue

The impact of fatigue can manifest either in the short run or as a long-term concern. In the immediate context, an individual may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Frequent and uncontrollable yawning, or experiencing bouts of drowsiness while on the job
  • Struggles with short-term memory, difficulty maintaining focus, and a challenging time with concentration
  • Difficulties participating in discussions or social interactions
  • Poor decision-making and questionable judgement
  • Declines in hand-eye coordination or sluggish reflexes
  • Noticeable alterations in behaviour, such as consistently arriving late for work
  • A rise in unexpected or unplanned absences from work

Workers experiencing fatigue may also experience symptoms that others cannot notice, such as:

  • feeling drowsy
  • headaches 
  • dizziness 
  • difficulty concentrating 
  • blurred vision 
  • a need for extended sleep during days off work

Understanding these signs, whether they are readily apparent or concealed, is crucial for recognising the presence of fatigue and taking proactive steps to manage and mitigate its effects on workplace safety.

Fatigue and Workplace Safety

Like chronic stress, fatigue poses a similarly significant and often underestimated risk to workplace safety in the construction industry.

Fatigued workers are more prone to experiencing decreased alertness, slower reaction times, and impaired concentration. In the construction field, these factors can lead to an increased likelihood of accidents and injuries.

Workers who are tired and drowsy are less likely to react promptly to unexpected hazards or make split-second decisions in potentially dangerous situations, such as when operating heavy machinery or working at heights.

Furthermore, fatigue-related memory problems can result in workers forgetting critical safety procedures or overlooking safety checks, which can have dire consequences on construction sites. Reduced hand-eye coordination and slow reflexes due to fatigue can further escalate the risk of accidents, particularly when precision and quick reactions are required for the job.

Reducing the Risk of Fatigue on Workplace Safety

Research indicates that reducing fatigue is a multifaceted process involving factors at individual, team, and organisational levels. If you’re looking to guard against fatigue on your worksite, consider the following science-backed recommendations.

Eliminate or reduce hazardous shift work and long-hour schedules

Eliminating or reducing hazardous shift work and long-hour schedules is crucial for enhancing workplace safety. Night shifts, while sometimes necessary, pose the highest health and safety risks due to the disruption of circadian rhythms. Whenever feasible, shift work should be scheduled during daytime hours. 

Avoiding rapid shift rotations, particularly weekly rotations, and opting for slower rotations that enable circadian rhythms to adapt can also contribute to a safer work environment.

Use breaks during work shifts to reduce health and safety risks

Incorporating breaks during work shifts is essential to mitigate health and safety risks associated with fatigue. Implementing regular 10- to 15-minute rest breaks every 1 to 2 hours, in addition to longer meal breaks, provides employees with opportunities to recharge and regain focus.

Furthermore, promoting diverse activities during breaks, such as exercise, stretching, or relaxation, can help reduce physical and mental fatigue. You might even infuse energising social moments into scheduled work breaks, such as by taking time to express gratitude or recognize Scratchie award recipients.

Address personal factors that increase fatigue and sleepiness at work

Recognising and addressing personal factors that contribute to fatigue and sleepiness at work is a critical safety measure. Sleep disorders among workers should be acknowledged and treated, as untreated disorders can jeopardise safety.

It's also important to address chronic illnesses and medications that interfere with sleep quality, as these can significantly impact an employee's ability to stay alert on the job. Supporting workers who face personal responsibilities affecting their sleep, such as caregiving for family members, is equally important.

Educate the workforce

Educating the workforce is an essential component of creating a culture of safety and wellbeing. Offering education and training programs on sleep health, alertness, and strategies to improve sleep equips employees with the knowledge and tools they need to manage fatigue effectively.

Using various occasions throughout the year to share brief messages about sleep health and alertness reinforces the importance of these topics. Moreover, developing a compelling business case for promoting sleep health by demonstrating its positive impact on productivity and overall health can help garner organisational support.

Join the Safety Revolution with Scratchie

Addressing chronic stress and fatigue is essential for ensuring workplace safety in the construction industry. The multifaceted strategies we've discussed, tailored to the construction sector, pave the way for safer, healthier, and more productive work environments.

To counter the impact of stress and fatigue, fostering a supportive work environment with open communication, clearly defined job roles, and positive feedback is crucial. When employees know they have the support of their supervisors in times of stress or fatigue, they're more likely to seek assistance when needed.

Scratchie, the positive safety app, plays a pivotal role in promoting this supportive culture by encouraging workers through regular feedback and rewards. This small change in feedback mechanisms can yield life-changing results on worksites through incremental cultural transformation.

Such transformation may be the difference between a worker who speaks up when they’re struggling and one who shies away from seeking help.

If you're eager to learn more and explore pathways to improve safety, we invite you to join us for our live Procore webinar. During the webinar, we'll delve deeper into these topics and introduce you to the app that has the potential to revolutionise safety in the construction industry. Don't miss out!


What are the most common causes of stress and fatigue in the construction industry?

The construction industry faces various stress and fatigue triggers, including long working hours, physically demanding tasks, high-pressure environments, job insecurity, and the potential for workplace accidents. These factors can contribute to chronic stress and fatigue among construction workers.

What are some signs that a construction worker may be experiencing chronic stress or fatigue?

Signs of chronic stress can include mood swings, frequent absences, declining work performance, and arguments with coworkers or family members. Signs of fatigue may include yawning, memory problems, drowsiness, and difficulties with concentration.

How can construction companies mitigate the risks of stress and fatigue among their workers?

Mitigating stress and fatigue risks involves a multifaceted approach. This includes identifying and managing stressors, promoting work-life balance, providing mental health support, developing stress-reducing policies, conducting stress risk assessments, and educating the workforce about stress and fatigue management.

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