Not tonight, I’m too tired . . .

How fatigue not only affects competence levels, it could be deadly

A recent study published by the British Medical Journal reports, allegedly, that it is more risky to have an operation on a Friday than a Monday. The implication being how doctors may be more tired and prone to mistakes.  My colleague Tony Atkinson has blogged before on the issue of fatigue on shift based teams and I’m a big believer in how fatigue affects the competence of people to perform tasks that are normally conducted effectively.

I just raise this again as I’m not sure what organisations do now to combat fatigue.  One story I recall was from a previous company I worked for where we gave the twilight shift some of the more complex assembly tasks and expected them to perform.  Of course the shift itself was at an awkward time, they were often people who had other jobs or domestic responsibilities through the day and thus arrived already tired and we supplied less supervisory support than on day shifts, and we wondered why so many mistakes were made.

There are always so many factors to take into account around this topic, e.g. I have just been discussing how one of our clients is moving from three 8-hour shifts to two 12-hour shifts per day.  This has the potential to create fatigue and thus increase the risk of error and accident yet, as we discussed, it also has the potential to reduce communication error by reducing the number of shift handovers.  There has to be a balance.  Also, in the case of the story reported on the BBC website, one doctor said he planned his most serious operation for a Thursday or Friday so that if complications set in he knew he’d be available all weekend without any other distractions or interruptions.  Just serves to remind us how important it is to consider the implications of any change we make and to involve the right stakeholders in making these decisions.

Image credit: half-blood prince via creative commons on Flickr

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About the author

Dave Dyer

Dave Dyer is a principal consultant within the Operations Improvement team in ABB Consulting. His speciality is in bringing sustainable change and operational benefits to an organisation through the engagement of its people. He hopes to share good ideas and good practice, to inform and to learn.
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