Fatigue at Work

How Fatigue Affects You and Your Business

Blog 1: DEAD TIRED - How Long Hours and Lack of Sleep are Affecting Your Health

Some years ago, I was a junior navigator flying Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft from RAF Kinloss in Scotland. After dinner one evening, at around 7:30pm, a senior officer rushed into the Officers’ Mess anteroom. He was clearly a little flustered and told me that another navigator had fallen ill and that I was going to have to replace him on an important flight the next day. “Get your head down now for a few hours and report for duty at midnight”.

Although slightly unsettled by the plan, I did as I was ordered and spent the next 4 hours lying in bed achieving precisely zero sleep. Nonetheless, I reported for work, planned the trip and set-off on our mission. This particular mission involved around 3 hours planning followed by 13 hours of flight.

The transit to our area of operations took about 4 hours and passed uneventfully. Our 4 hour period of being ‘on-task’ was extremely productive and exciting. Then we began our return to base. As there were 2 navigators on a Nimrod crew and my responsibilities for this trip were now complete, I lay back in my seat and closed my eyes. Unsurprisingly, given my utter lack of sleep, I quickly drifted off.

Sometime later, I awoke with a start. Looking to my right, I saw the other navigator fast asleep at his station. Although slightly annoyed, I wasn’t unduly concerned; after all, there was a 13 man crew on board to keep an eye out for problems. After shaking my crewmate awake, I walked back to the aircraft galley to make a pot of strong coffee to help the crew stay alert.

A few minutes later I walked through the cabin, coffee pot in hand, checking on the crew. To my horror, every single person on-board was fast asleep – including the flight deck engineer and both pilots – and I have no idea for how long.

When we had landed, and after debriefing the mission, I mentioned what had happened to one of our senior officers. He told me “Most people on the Squadron have done that at some point” and no more was said or done about it.

We were lucky and we escaped unharmed but on another day……

Long hours and less sleep than we’d like are familiar parts of working in financial services. When socialising, young children or a long commute are added the effect can be pronounced but have you ever wondered what effect fatigue is having on you?

Read on and I’ll try to give you some idea.

In my previous career in the Air Force, I was responsible for introducing a fatigue risk management system to my unit, was part of a high level fatigue risk working group and then continued my interest by writing my masters dissertation on the impact of fatigue on cognitive performance in investment bankers. As far as I know, I’m still the only person anywhere to have studied that particular aspect of fatigue. Over the next few blogs I’ll cover how fatigue affects mental health and the impact it has on cognitive performance, decision-making, risk behaviours and moral judgment but in this piece I’ll try to give some insight into how fatigue affects your physical health and mortality.

We all know that people in the city work long hours but is it a problem?

Well, when Antonio Horta-Osario was CEO of Lloyds, he checked himself into the Priory suffering from exhaustion having not slept for 5 days; it was many months before he finally returned to work. Similarly, when Sir Hector Sants was Head of Compliance at Barclay’s he took sick leave for exhaustion only a few weeks after taking the role. He resigned 10 months after starting. Finally, and most tragically, Moritz Erhardt – an intern at BAML – died after working 72 hours without rest. At the inquest into the 21 year old’s death, the Coroner said:

“One of the triggers for epilepsy is exhaustion and it may be that because Moritz had been working so hard his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him.”

Sadly, fatigue and lack of sleep do not need to be as intense as these examples to have a hugely detrimental effect on our health. The sort of work and sleep patterns common in Financial Services are all too capable of causing problems.

There has been a good deal of research into the physiological effects of fatigue and this research has recently been picked up by media outlets. James Gallagher of the BBC wrote:

"Scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities warn cutting sleep is leading to ‘serious health problems’. They say people and governments need to take the problem seriously. Cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infections and obesity have all been linked to reduced sleep.”

The Times joined in:

“According to a 2011 investigation by Warwick University, sleeping poorly for less than 6 hours increases your risk of dying from heart disease by almost 50%, and from a stroke by 15%. Both conditions are associated with chronic inflammation of the cardiovascular system.....Francesco Cappuccio, a Warwick University professor of cardiovascular medicine, says that people who sleep for less than 6 hours a night are 12 per cent more likely to die before the age of 65 than those who sleep between 7 and 8 hours”.

Let’s just emphasise that: people who sleep less than 6 hours a night are 50% more likely to die of heart disease, 15% more likely to die from a stroke and 12% more likely to die before 65 from any cause. That is bad news if you’re an Associate in Corporate Finance – or maybe just if you work long hours or have small children.

Worse still, lack of sleep doesn’t have to be long-term to have an adverse impact on your health:

“Studies at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that over the past five years, the number of heart attacks increased by about 5 per cent during the first week of summer [after the clocks change]. Even a single night without sleep can deeply affect us. When University of California sleep expert Matthew Walker brain-scanned people after a sleepless night, he found that their basic centres of emotion, the amygdala, over-reacted when they were shown disturbing news pictures.” (Naish 2014, The Times).

Two of the big-hitters in sleep research, Banks and Dinges, reviewed some of the research literature and came to the conclusion that restricted sleep adversely affected many aspects of our physiology including:

“….reduced glucose tolerance, increased blood pressure, and increased inflammatory markers in healthy adults. Consistent with these reports are epidemiologic studies that find self-reported short sleep duration is associated with obesity, heart disease, and mortality. Thus, current research findings on the effects of sleep restriction on neurobehavioral and physiological functioning suggest that adequate sleep duration (7–8 hours per night) is vital.”

So, if you don’t want to get fat, have a heart attack or a stroke or just have a better chance of living beyond 65, you may want to get more sleep.

About Me

An ex-Air Force pilot, Jason was also a member of the Royal Air Force's Fatigue Working Group for large aircraft. He designed and implemented a Fatigue Risk Management System for the crews and engineers at RAF Northolt and has used bio-mathematical models to study the effect of fatigue on cognitive performance in aviation and financial services.