Work Fatigue: Why do I get so tired at work?

Why do I get so tired at work

Is work tiring? This might seem a stupid question. Put it to a busy mother at the end of her day’s work, try it on a call center agent who can’t get a seat in the bus home – and just see what reaction you’ll get!

Chances are they’ll either snap your head off or laugh in your face. They’ll say, “Of course work is tiring! It’s exhausting!”

But a doctor’s view is much less straightforward. Numerous studies by highly qualified specialists have shown that for the most part, you are not tired because you work.

It is because you are already tired – or disposed toward tiredness – that work becomes tiring.

The distinction is an important one. The specialists say that fatigue in work is first and foremost a defense mechanism.

Of course, you cannot work uninterruptedly without getting tired. It is a curious fact that when fatigue appears, effort increases. This produces – by way of a reaction against the fatigue – a temporary increase in output.

But this reaction does not last. Soon there is a sharp fall in performance. In this way, fatigue imposes a limit to excessive activity. It defends you against excess.

However, there are extraordinary differences in the fatigue “limits” of different individuals – and even in the same individual in varying circumstances.

In an experiment to illustrate this, several men were asked to dig holes, which they had to fill up again immediately. They tired very quickly.

Another time they had to do the same thing again – but this time they were digging to find pipelines, the plans of which had been lost. The second time fatigue was far less. The diggers knew why they were digging.

Fatigue in work depends partly on personality

It is, in effect, the result of a war on two fronts. The first front is the outside world – the battalions of daily events every man and woman has to face, with work problems well to the fore.

The second battlefront is in the hidden, innermost part of the mind. Fatigue appears only when this second front yields – whatever the job to be done.

Given equal health, a determined personality holds out against fatigue longer than a more passive one.

Psychoanalysts are well aware of fatigue as a reaction to difficulties. Fatigue can sometimes be an excuse for an inability to come to grips with a job.

This inability felt as fatigue, allows the deepest part of the personality, the unconscious mind, to retreat into inaction.

Naturally, fatigue is not wholly subjective. It is invariably linked with working conditions.

In fact, fatigue results when a determined personality comes up against a rigorous, demanding kind of job. Poor working conditions can make the job much harder.

Working wives

A woman who goes out to work – particularly a married woman – has a special fatigue problem.

Research has shown that, even if she gets a good sleep at night, she gets not nearly enough relaxation in the day – even on her Sundays.

She does the housework as well as her job. Fatigue, under these circumstances, is the fate of most working wives.

It has been found that increasing numbers of women factory workers sometimes use stimulants and tranquilizers, including large doses of aspirin, which ultimately contribute to their fatigue.

The fatigue of a whole-time housewife is very real, but different from that of a woman with a job.

Housework, for the most part, consists of a lot of small jobs which are often repeated – and very often interrupted.

It is the irritating “itsy-bitsy” quality of the job which tends to make it unrewarding. Besides, it is not strictly counted as “work” by women friends with jobs, and husbands with absorbing careers. It is this non-recognition, this “injustice,” which sometimes gives a housewife a chip on the shoulder – and so makes her “tired.”

This points up a very important observation: fatigue is linked to the recognized value of a job.

Influence of lighting

At a large European factory making electrical goods, studies have recently been made of the influence of lighting on the output and fatigue of a group of workers.

It was noticed that while these experiments were in progress output increased and fatigue diminished.

Why? Because the experiments proved to this group of workers that their work was “interesting” – so they took more interest in rt themselves.

In Russia, a scientific team has shown that when factory workers know they are working in the presence of sympathetic observers, they breathe more deeply.

This sends up their consumption of oxygen and decreases fatigue.

But some of these expert studies throw great doubt on accepted ideas.

For instance, most people would say that the obvious way to avoid fatigue was to shorten working hours. It seems this is not always true.

In France, a special study has been made of fatigue among call center agents. In certain agents, weekly working hours were reduced from 40 to 36. However, no corresponding reduction in fatigue among agents was recorded.

Professor R. Binois reported, “The number of working hours has been reduced, the work is physically less exacting, and yet professional fatigue has not been reduced; it seems to have increased.”

Experts have also made detailed studies of the effects of shiftwork on operatives in various jobs.

They have established that frequent changes from dayshift to nightshift cause all sorts of troubles.

For example, in one study they found 64 percent of workers on alternating weekly or fortnightly dayshifts and nightshifts suffered from nervous disorders – against 25 percent of day workers.

A curious sidelight on shiftwork is that an obesity problem has been found among nurses who are constantly on night-duty. Their overweight is thought to be due to the fact that they eat more to compensate (psychologically rather than physically) for their “odd hours.”

Then there is the question of the pace and intensity of work under present-day conditions.

Industrial machines impose a certain rhythm in work. This rhythm can mean that, even without physical effort, seven hours of modem work is more exacting than 12 hours was 100 years ago, at a slower rhythm.

Specialists say, however, that it is not only the rapid phases of a person’s work which cause fatigue. Phases which are too slow are as tiring as those which are too quick.

The experts also say that to feel “pushed” is a stimulant, especially for people who work among many others, as part of a large labor force.

To “have plenty of time” at work is often resented – consciously or unconsciously – as demoralizing, and consequently tiring.


This is a factor in fatigue that we hear a lot about these days.

The noise in a foundry, for example, causes deterioration, after four hours, of the body’s sensory-motor performance.

Noise produces not only an auditory fatigue but also a central fatigue, affecting the nervous system, breathing mechanism, digestion, and glandular secretions.

But physical hazards like noise are not the only ones. Responsibility, an element of uncertainty in work, the way in which orders from the boss are transmitted – all these factors which specialists call “the psycho-sociological factors” tend to be more and more important in causing fatigue.

But here again, the experts’ findings do not necessarily correspond with many people’s preconceived ideas. Additional responsibility does not necessarily mean more fatigue.

Some enjoy routine

On the contrary, too little responsibility tires some people.

At the same time, very routine mechanical work gives other people a certain liberty of mind. In their case it can be the break in the monotony which tires them, not the monotony itself – it’s all a question of personality.

However, excessive responsibility, which causes a feeling of uncertainty, generally generates fatigue.

Personal relationships at work are of intense importance. Bad relations between people in an organization can aggravate fatigue. Excessive supervision provokes aggressive traumatic reactions.

In a general way, what people seem to want from their work is that it should give them reasonable cause for self-respect. Everything in their jobs which helps to fulfill this need for respect stimulates their vitality – and reduces fatigue.

Another question the experts have been asking is whether salary problems are a factor in fatigue.

They say that when the pay envelope is too small – and making ends meet is a constant struggle – this is a definite cause of fatigue.

A study was made of fatigue in a group of skilled workers, foremen in a heavy engineering industry. It was found that none of them connected their fatigue with money, but they did link it with their status in the organization they worked for.

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