Fatigue: A Hidden Challenge to the Public Sector Workforce

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Some years ago, we were given the opportunity to spend a day hanging around with the management division of the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton Administration.

The dedicated government officials we were observing had started their days at the crack of dawn preparing for the work ahead, and then were in back-to-back meetings for hours on end. By late afternoon, we noticed that many could barely keep their eyes open (and at least a few failed in that effort, at least for a few seconds at a time).

That was a long time ago, and we hadn’t thought about that day very much. But over the course of the last year, as we researched a white paper for UKG titled “Fatigue in the Public Sector Workforce: Risks and Solutions,” we became aware that fatigue is a chronic and debilitating problem in many jobs at all levels of government.

Of course, the men and women we encountered that day in Washington D.C. could lose their focus without great danger to the republic. But in many other public sector jobs, including those at the state and local level, which were the focus of the white paper, drowsy workers can lead to threats to their safety and that of others.  Beyond that, a worn-out workforce jeopardizes effectiveness and productivity and leads to unplanned and unexplained absences, and declining levels of customer satisfaction.

With a shortage of employees for many public sector jobs, the problem has just gotten worse in recent years. Too few workers, for example, often means that too much overtime is necessary. And while some employees may appreciate the extra pay, they may be somewhat less than competent at their jobs. In fact, one study showed that the impact of going for 18 straight hours with no sleep is equal to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 which results in euphoria, lower inhibitions, and exaggerated emotions according to a report by the University of Toledo. Meanwhile, people who stay awake for 24 hours in a row may act as though they had a blood alcohol level of .10, which results in impairment in balance, speech, vision and reaction time as well as self-control, according to the same University of Toledo study.

Consider the shortage of police officers, which can lead others to work many consecutive hours of overtime. For example, a March 2022 audit in Berkely, California stated that “Police are required to be alert and use good judgment in order to respond appropriately to emergency calls. They must be able to make split-second decisions and act on them with limited time and information in situations where there may be an element of danger. They are responsible not only for the safety of the public but also for other responding public safety officials (police, firefighters, paramedics). Overtime, when used in excess, can inhibit these essential skills and increase the safety risk to the public and other personnel.”

Fatigue can lead to alarming problems for workers even when they’re not on the job. As we wrote in the UKG report, “For shift workers generally, a very dangerous time of day is the post-shift drive home. . . in  2022, a fatal car accident occurred in which a corrections worker in Colorado lost his life while driving the long commute home after an overnight prison shift. According to a police report, the car drifted over a center line after the driver appeared to have fallen asleep at the wheel and collided with a pickup truck. His fiancée told KRDO news that he had been working overtime on a regular basis.”

Heightened awareness of the hazards of fatigue in public sector jobs is only half the equation. As we wrote in the UKG white paper, “Since there are multiple factors that contribute to worker fatigue – long shifts, lack of rest between shifts, consecutive days of work, excessive overtime, repeated scheduling changes, night work, and more – it can be very difficult for managers to deal with this issue without quick and seamless access to good data that helps identify the underlying causes of fatigue.”

In fact, a little over a year ago a pilot program was launched in the Georgia Department of Corrections that provides a data dashboard to allow wardens, deputy wardens, detention supervisors, and human resource managers at the state’s prison and detention facilities to detect the workers who were putting in unsafe numbers of hours at the job.

“You have a clearer picture of what’s going on with the staff members and the hours worked,” Deshawn Jones, warden at Phillips State Prison in Georgia told us. “The dashboard gives a better insight of what’s going on with your staff members instead of finding out on the tail end when somebody has worked a long shift. We want to be proactive.”

This kind of workforce data can be used     to good effect and ideally will be used by managers to weigh and balance the simple need to make sure that there’s ample staff on hand at any given time with the hazards of working the staff they have too hard and for too many hours.

 “The job needs to be done and departments have to make it work in some way, shape, or form,” Jones said. “But they do have a responsibility to be tracking those hours.”

Added Cliff Hogan, director of data management at the Georgia Department of Corrections, “You can tell (supervisors) over and over again that they’re working people too much, but until you show them in a way that jumps off of the page, it doesn’t become clear. That’s when people really start to say, ‘Okay. I can see it now.’”


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