Employment Panorama: Work, Fatigue and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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ABOVE: Dog tired? There are many things you can do to avoid fatigue in the workplace when it is caused by known factors over which you have some control. However, Doctors tell Jessica B that her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has no known treatment. PHOTO FROM PIXABAY

By Warren Heggarty

Fatigue, the feeling of exhaustion and being worn out, is quite common among our readers. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is medication, sometimes it is lack of sleep (insomnia), and it can even be too much sleep. Sometimes fatigue is caused by overworking or not having sufficient breaks. Sometimes the cause is mysterious, as it is for Jessica, who has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Whatever the cause, we need to be aware of strategies we can use to deal with fatigue so that we can have a healthy working (and playing!) life.

Whether fatigue is caused by factors outside of work or factors at work, it is important for managers as well as workers to tackle it. According to WorkSafe Australia, fatigue in the workplace can impact on the health and safety of the people around you. It leads to a lack of alertness, slower reaction times, and can affect your ability to make good decisions. Fatigue can increase the risk of incidents and injuries in workplaces. This is especially true in intricate work where safety is vital, such as taking part in surgical procedures. More about that in a moment!

Managers should always keep an eye on work procedures and processes, on workloads and on schedules as a part of measuring and reducing the impact of fatigue.

How much is too much? 

One type of work which is notorious for pushing people beyond their limits is medicine. It is ironic that a doctor would probably never advise a patient to work longer hours, yet junior doctors often have a crushing schedule. Over the past couple of years we have seen many reports in newspapers about young doctors developing mental health issues, and even taking their own lives, because they feel they cannot live up to expectations.

Recently, there was a news article about a trainee surgeon who was reportedly expected to work up to 70 hours per week while being on call for “seven days straight” at a Sydney hospital. When she complained, it was allegedly put down to her being an “emotional female.” (Aubusson, 2019)

Around the same time, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian reported that the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons told a Parliamentary Enquiry in South Australia that a 55-65 hour working week is appropriate for trainees and that restricting trainees to 38 hours per week would undermine their development. (Parnell, 2019). Some of these trainees, of course, will end up becoming psychiatrists!

The point is, the Sydney trainee ended up spending six weeks in hospital herself and felt she had to quit, saying, “I was physically alive but spiritually broken.” 

The College says that there are strategies that trainees can use in order to deal with the stress of long hours and being on call. But if there wasn’t a problem, why would you need strategies? (Parnell, 2019)

While stretching yourself by always going a little bit beyond your comfort zone is a good thing, routinely pushing yourself far beyond your limits will do you no good, and probably a whole lot of bad, too.

Fatigue and Emergencies

Sometimes during an emergency people have no choice but to push themselves to work long hours. But this should never become routine. Emergencies like bushfires, floods, storms and so on are not day-in-day-out affairs, and the people who work (and volunteer) during these events are able to get some down time to recuperate in between crises. 

At the NSW State Emergency Services (SES) there are two main divisions, field work and operations. Operations involves working on computers and phones, setting teams up and assigning jobs. Jessica B, 24, who formerly accessed Flourish Australia’s YCLSS at Penrith, volunteers in the operations centre at Penrith SES in Claremont Meadows. 

Jessica has worked a couple of shifts where there have been bad storms and “you almost have to triage the jobs” there are so many calls all at once. One of the most remarkable jobs undertaken by Penrith SES (though not during Jessica’s shift) was the frantic search for the severed arm of a waterskier in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. They had to find the limb within a short timeframe so that they would still have a change of reattaching it. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. Such is the unpredictability of work for the SES.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Jessica happens to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or CFS). This is characterised by “profound fatigue, sleep abnormalities, pain and other symptoms that are made worse by exertion.” 

“There is a problem,” Jessica says, “with people not understanding the severity of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It isn’t just tiredness, but extreme exhaustion. For much of the day I am limited in what I can do. Because there is no treatment, even if an employer asked me ‘how can we accommodate this’, there is no straightforward answer.”

Health Direct says that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome “you are likely to feel very tired, very often even if you have not been active.” They suggest that if you have a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome it can be helpful to relax as much as possible, to have a regular sleep pattern, to limit your activity, and to keep your activity levels even (that includes good days). You should also avoid drugs that could affect your sleep. Some doctors suggest gentle, graded exercise, too.

“In my case,” Jessica told Panorama, “it is called post viral chronic fatigue syndrome because it seemed to start ten years ago after I had swine flu. They don’t know why. I’m a lot better now than I was. I’ve adjusted myself to what is best for my body.”

A few adjustments have helped Jessica to live her life. 

“The advantage with volunteering for the SES is that they have roles for people who start their shifts really late. Although training days and first aid classes tend to happen during normal business hours. For me, those days can be very taxing.”

“Ideally, I’d love to be a vet nurse or a paramedic, but with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, if I overdo things, I will crash. Doctors tell me there is no known cause and no treatment.”

The fact that Jessica is able to volunteer with the SES shows that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome may not be entirely incompatible with work commitments if there is flexibility and understanding. 

“There is a problem with people not understanding the severity of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is not just tiredness, but extreme exhaustion. For much of the day I am limited in what I can do.”

-Jessica B.

References

Aubusson, K. (2019, February 6). Exhausted surgeon dismissed as “emotional female”. Sydney Morning Herald

Parnell, S. (2019, February 6). Working 65 hours a week good for young doctors, college says. The Australian

jess.jpgABOVE: Jessica B volunteers in operations at the State Emergency Services at Claremont Meadows, near Penrith NSW. PHOTO WARREN HEGGARTY. 

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