When Coffee isn’t Enough… Combatting Work Place Fatigue In Remote Workers

Posted in : HR Updates on 24 June 2021
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered: Work Place Fatigue; Hybrid Working; Mental Health

‘I’ll get round to it soon – I’m just too tired.’

‘I just don’t have the energy. The tank is empty.’

‘I don’t have time to stop and rest.’ 

How many of us have been feeling like this recently?  Our self-imposed expectation of having to ‘keep it all together’ during the Covid pandemic and our fear of revealing to others what we see as our vulnerabilities has led to what Horrobin (2021) calls ‘the perfect storm of crisis and isolation’. The last 16 months have seen many of us coping with sustained periods of fear, uncertainly, anxiety and, inevitably, fatigue and exhaustion.

Fatigue and its impact on work performance has long been an area for research. Workplace factors shown to influence fatigue include shift rotation patterns, long work hours, balanced workloads, timing of tasks and activities, insufficient rest times, availability of resources, and the workplace environment (e.g., lighting, ventilation, temperature, etc.).

Fatigue can have a broad range of both physical and psychological impacts that effect work performance, including weariness, tiredness, sleepiness, irritability, reduced alertness, concentration and memory, reduced ability to be productive, mental tiredness, lack of motivation, depression and increased susceptibility to accidents and illness.

So how can the findings from fatigue research help us with today’s particular challenges as we return to work and how we can design our new models of workplace practices to optimise performance and well-being?

As HR professionals, we need to pro-actively lead this workplace design, liaising closely with line managers and others involved in planning for our new ways and places of working, be it a remote working model, a hybrid model or a return to the workplace. Taking on board the experience and wisdom gained from working through the lockdown period and seeking to support the well-being of staff, we need to:

  1. Provide tips, advice and guidance on strategies employees can use to promote a better balance between work and home while working remotely or in a hybrid model, such as setting clear working hours and communicating this arrangement to colleagues and managers, dedicating a specific area in the house, if possible, for working and disconnecting from technology and emails at an agreed time.
  2. Seek out views from staff on models of working – balancing the needs of the business and the individual and determining what opportunities are available, even on an initial trial basis, to facilitate this.Also considering what support is required, such as equipment, furniture, the level and nature of contact between staff and managers and access to staff welfare support.
  3. Critically, recognise that for those with restricted space at home, or with busy households, home working may not be the best option.
  4. Ensure that our managers are involved in the design of working models and focused on the well-being of staff, given the level of anxiety and exhaustion that currently exists.

Gartner’s 2021 research on hybrid working strategies in the UK stated that “too many organisations resorted to virtualising what they did in the office when pandemic restrictions hit last year.” This has led to 42% of employees feeling drained from working remotely, according to its research. The failure to rethink how we work in the hybrid model is driving fatigue.

Interestingly Gartner’s research also showed an increase in presenteeism behaviour; 62% of subjects who knew they were being tracked by their employers showed an increase in the length of their working day.

To capture the opportunity of new remote and hybrid workforce models and to minimise remote work fatigue, Gartner suggests that organisations must design a work model that tackles three challenges that are specific to the remote and hybrid environment: digital distractions, virtual overload and ‘always-on’ mind-set.

Gartner recommends that HR professionals develop a ‘human-centric work environment’, rather than simply implementing the old office-centric way of working, such as providing flexible work experiences, enabling intentional collaboration, and driving empathy-based management.                        

An important way to manage the energy and well-being of our employees is to put in place clear work and personal life boundaries. In their research on Boundary Management Allen, Merlo, Lawrence, Slutsky and Gray (2021) outlined the most common effective tactics the workers in their study used to manage their work–life boundaries:

  • Creating physical and psychological distance between work and home life, for example working in a specific place in the home so they could ‘leave’ that space at the end of the working day
  • Disconnecting from technology after working hours, and keeping work and personal devices separate.
  • Ensuring a clear start and finish time to the working day with time for breaks.

Such is the interest in and the importance of tackling fatigue that both national and international experts have come together to address these issues.

In April of this year over 40 of the world’s leading experts on fatigue came together for the largest ever 7 day online conference, The Fatigue Super Conference! Locally, Business in the Community NI organised a Sleep Workshop in June with Sleep Behaviour and Environment Expert, the Sleep Geek, James Wilson.

Business in the Community offer access to a useful, online Sleep and Recovery toolkit (www.bitc.org.uk) with information, resources and practical actions employers can take to maximise employee energy and minimise fatigue.

In addition to what we as HR professionals and managers can do to minimise fatigue and shape work place policies and models of working, what practical things can we as individuals do for ourselves or suggest to those who work with us to tackle the current levels of fatigue?  What simple changes to our routine and lifestyle might help?

Team Rest Less have drawn together the following practical steps to consider:

  • Look at improving both the quantity and quality of sleep e.g. creating a night time routine, ensuring you move your body every day, getting more fresh air and sunlight, reducing caffeine intake, switching off electronic devices 30 minutes before going to bed and not working and sleeping in the same room.
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet.The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the best foods for improving energy levels are whole plant-based foods and slow release, unrefined carbohydrates e.g. fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Increasing your daily intake of water, as dehydration impacts both your energy levels and quality of sleep. NHS guidelines recommend a minimum of 1.2 litres of water per day (6-8 glasses)
  • Developing stress management techniques – such as yoga, meditation, journaling, walking, talking to a friend, taking a bath before bed time
  • Reducing alcohol consumption, which again impacts energy levels and quality of sleep. NHS guidelines recommend that women and men should not exceed 14 units of alcohol per week.
  • Making exercise a habit – as this boost’s energy, releases endorphins and improves the quality of sleep. Building in a walk at lunch time or making calls as you walk are simple steps that can help, particularly as so many of us are spending so much time sitting in front of screens now. NHS guidelines recommend 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week.
  • Increasing your iron intake, by taking iron rich foods such as leafy green vegetables, meat, liver, nuts and whole grains.
  • Decreasing your caffeine intake, as caffeine can provide a short-term energy boost but again impacts negatively on energy and sleep. Taking decaffeinated versions of tea and coffee or caffeine free drinks, such as herbal teas can help a phased reduction of caffeine.
  • Eating smaller meals, more frequently to ensure that your blood sugars remain stable and you do not experience energy slumps, resulting in reaching for caffeine, sugar based foods or feeling like sleeping!

It’s important to remember, however, that chronic tiredness can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying health problem, such as an iron deficiency, Vitamin B or D deficiency, anxiety or depression so if your tiredness has persisted for a while, you should make an appointment to see your GP.

One of my favourite postings that I received this year and have forwarded many times is:

‘She believed she could and she almost did, but then a pandemic hit and someone asked her to do double the amount of work with the same amount of hours in the day, and someone else asked her to be the best version of herself while running on fumes, and she lost track of realistic expectations until she heard all the women talking, realised she wasn’t alone, poured another cup of coffee and decided her best was enough.’

As Horrobin (2021) states ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re tired. You’re not alone. You never will be. We’re relearning how to be human. Please reach out if you need to.’ 

I couldn’t agree more.


This article is correct at 24/06/2021

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email Mairead.Regan@clarendonexecutive.com

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