Fatigue is common. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s often assumed to be an unavoidable part of our workday. Although there are many causes for fatigue, there are also many ways of fighting it. Perhaps surprisingly, light and temperature can play a large part in beating tiredness, preventing serious workplace incidents and improving employee performance.
Natural light is extremely important to people’s mental and physical health. Not getting enough sunlight negatively influences their performance and well-being, and vastly contributes to chronic fatigue. Shift work, long working hours and workplaces without windows are some of the most common reasons why workers aren’t exposed to enough sunlight.
The two systems that regulate human bodies (sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock) respond to natural changes between light and dark, and they are easily affected by the lack of sunlight. Having bright lights in the workplace or drinking energy drinks and coffee doesn’t fool the biological clock—people are most tired in the evening, night or in the early morning. Not incidentally, this is also when people make the most mistakes and cause the most incidents.
A recent study compared two groups of people—one exposed to daylight, the other to artificial light—over the course of several workdays. Researchers found that the physical well-being of the participants exposed to artificial lighting was worse in the afternoon.
They also found that although alertness and physical well-being decreased for both groups of participants (which could be attributed to the natural circadian afternoon dip in energy), those under artificial light felt sleepy earlier.
It’s easy to conclude that providing employees with enough natural light can have a positive impact on their energy levels and, as a result, increase their productivity. Natural light helps regulate circadian rhythms, fights fatigue and affects people’s physical and mental well-being.
Improved alertness and lowered fatigue mean fewer mistakes and better concentration, which leads to a safer workplace and fewer injuries.
Of course, providing employees with enough sunlight is not always possible. Some workplaces don’t have enough windows, while others have employees working evenings or nights. However, simply encouraging workers to go outside during breaks (if possible) or moving their break room somewhere with access to natural light can be helpful.
When redesigning buildings or building new ones, employers should consider how much light they can provide to their workers. Simply putting in skylights can make a significant difference. If no other option is possible, artificial lighting that replicates natural light might be a step forward. But it’s worth remembering that although a full spectrum lamp can, almost completely, mimic natural daylight, it can’t fully replace natural light and its positive impact on human biology.
Human bodies need energy to function at an optimal level. Metabolic rate and energy consumption can be affected by even minor changes to the environment. When people work in lower temperatures, energy that is diverted to warm the body leaves less energy for the brain. This results in reduced mental capabilities and a higher likelihood of mistakes.
One study found that at low temperatures (20°C /68°F), employees in an office environment made 44% more mistakes than at “optimal room temperature” (25°C/77°F). The research concluded that raising the temperature from 20°C to 25°C saves money in productivity and reduces errors. Although not everyone works in offices, environmental temperature will have a similar impact on their work wherever they are.
Conversely, working in extreme heat requires the body to expend energy on trying to cool itself, quickly leading to fatigue and dehydration.
Organizations should consider how environmental conditions like light and temperature affect their employees. Even small changes are worth exploring if they could reduce the number of errors made by employees and potentially lead to lower injury rates.
Circadian rhythms can be easily disrupted by insufficient sleep, working long or irregular hours, or by not being exposed to enough natural light. This can contribute to the feeling of fatigue. A small change in temperature can also have a significant impact on employee energy levels and performance.
Allowing the sleep/wake restorative process and the circadian rhythm to work in unison helps people perform better—especially when coupled with quality sleep, a sufficient amount of natural light and an optimal temperature.
But those are only a few of the ways to beat fatigue and improve work performance. Workplace safety professionals should learn more by registering for this fascinating (and free) webinar. It explores the increasingly serious impact of fatigue on the workplace and examines the best ways to address the issue at the safety level.