Dealing with fatigue in the workplace

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

Employers and workers need to be mindful of the impact of fatigue in the workplace.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission has handed down a decision that sends a clear message that all parties must cooperate to guard against fatigue and ensure safety at work.

According to SafeWork NSW, fatigue is ‘a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion which reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively’. 

Research tells us that a lack of sleep (i.e. fatigue) has comparable affects to alcohol consumption:

  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08
  • 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.10
  • Between 0.05 and 0.08 blood alcohol content, every person suffers impairment in tasks requiring skills, vigilance and precision.
Fatigue in the workplace therefore needs to be carefully managed as all jobs require skills.

The case before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (Grafton v Waverley Council (No.2) [2017] NSWIRComm 1020) was about Phillip Grafton, a full-time employee of Waverley Council.  During the day, he worked as a ‘Public Place Cleaner’. At night, Mr Grafton also worked full-time as a night-filler at Woolworths.

Mr Grafton injured his wrist and took extended time off work. He made a workers’ compensation claim, and through that process, Council became aware of his second job. They tried to get Mr Grafton to reduce his hours, but he refused. Council terminated his employment for serious misconduct; disobedience. He brought a claim for unfair dismissal to the Commission, which failed.

You can go and look up the case to see the Commission’s reasoning, but in short, the Commission sided with the Council in finding that the termination was not harsh, unreasonable or unjust.  

The Council’s directions to Mr Grafton to reduce his hours ‘were lawful because his work with Woolworths had the potential to conflict with his Council duties, in the sense of his ability to carry out those duties in a safe manner, without risk to himself and others,’ the Commission said.

The point about the case is that employers have a legal duty of care to protect the health and safety of all employees at work.

Had Mr Grafton been involved in an accident that caused harm to others, because he was fatigued, there could have been very serious consequences.

But workers also have some responsibility to ensure that their acts and omissions do not affect others.  Some personal responsibility needs to be taken and employees must cooperate with employers.

Praise versus criticism in the workplace and at home

Praise or criticism? Which has the most power to change behaviour?

Which is more effective in improving individual or team performance: using positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or offering constructive but critical comments to help them when they’re off track?

Research* published in Kim Cameron’s book, Positive Leadership suggests that this is a trick question. The answer, as one might intuitively expect, is that both are important.

The factor that makes the greatest difference between the most and least successful people at home and at work appears to be the ratio of positive comments “I agree with that,” for instance, or “that’s a terrific idea”, or “I love it when you smile”, to negative comments like “I don’t agree with you” “we shouldn’t even consider doing that” “that colour looks terrible on you”, “that report is full of mistakes”, “I’m sick of clearing up your mess”.

The highest-performing teams made only one negative comment to six positive ones, while the poorest performing teams made three negative comments to every positive one.

That is not to say all criticism is bad. In fact, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and ‘groupthink’.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has conducted its own research on praise and criticism. It found that constructive criticism could help leaders overcome serious weaknesses.

The key word here is serious. HBR provides 360-degree feedback to leaders. They have observed among the 50,000 or so leaders in their database that those who’ve received the most negative comments were the ones who, in absolute terms, improved the most.

Specifically, their aggregate data showed that three-quarters of those receiving the lowest leadership effectiveness scores – and who made an effort to improve – rose on average 33 percentile points in their rankings after a year. That is, they moved from the 23rd percentile (the middle of the worst) to the 56th percentile (or square in the middle of the pack).

It seems the people who get the most negative feedback have the most room to grow. It’s far harder for someone at the 90th percentile already to improve so much.

But clearly those benefits potentially come with serious costs or the amount of negative feedback that leads to high performance would be higher.

Negative feedback is important when the organisation is heading over a cliff, to warn an employee that they’d better stop doing something horrible or start doing something better right away. But even the most well-intentioned and necessary criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative.

It can change behaviour, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigour, determination, and creativity.

Perhaps that’s why HBR has found with the vast majority of the leaders in their database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement.

In fact, for those in the database who start out above average already (but are still below the 80th percentile), positive feedback works like negative feedback does for the bottom group. Focusing on their strengths enabled 62 per cent of this group to improve a full 24 percentage points (to move from the 55th to the 79th percentile).

The absolute gains are not as great as they are for the most-at-risk leaders, since they started so much further ahead. But the benefits to the organisation of making average leaders into good ones is far greater, because it puts them on the road to becoming the exceptional leaders that every organisation desperately needs.

As an interesting aside, it is noteworthy that this research is echoed in an uncanny way by John Gottman’s analysis of wedded couples’ likelihood of getting divorced or remaining married.

Once again, the single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. And the optimal ratio is amazingly similar – five positive comments for every negative one.

For those who ended up divorced, Gottman found the ratio was 0.77 to 1 – or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.

Clearly in work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behaviour needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback.

The key is to keep the opposing viewpoint rational, objective, and calm – and above all not to engage in any personal attack (under the disingenuous guise of being “constructive”).

So, lead by example – both at home and at work – and endeavour to move the proportion closer to the ideal of about 6 to 1 by your own example.

*The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, published by American Behavioural Scientist.

How to shine at your next job interview

Every job interview is a potential doorway to a new life.

Job Interview
Every job interview is a potential doorway to a new life. Your job is to impress. Being well informed and well-practised will help you relax, be more confident, articulate and successful.

Here are some interview tips that may help our working carers who are seeking a new job.

Practice makes perfect  

You will have the most confidence going into an interview if you have practised well beforehand in an interview setting. This is where your best friend, partner, mum, dad or the cat come in handy! Sit them down and give them a list of potential questions and ask them to grill you, while you sit across the table and answer.

Well okay, maybe not the cat, but if that is your only audience, ask yourself the questions and direct the answers to the mirror! You should dedicate a few hours each day to practising for interviews.

Another idea is to pay for a career development or recruitment service that offers mock interviews.

Try and get interviews with lots of similar organisations – even if you don’t want that particular job – the practice will be beneficial and you will have much more confidence when that dream job comes along.

Keep a list of how you answered each question and reflect on how you could answer better next time.

Prepare a structure you can use to answer questions

You need to have a well-developed structure for answering questions – especially problem-solving questions – and memorise it.

You need an idea of how to start. Sitting there blank-faced will not help you one iota.

Always repeat the question to the interviewer. You want to be sure you understand it and have all the relevant details. This will clarify your thinking and buy you a little bit of time to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them any assumptions you are making. Be clear what the OUTCOME or OBJECTIVES are that they wish to achieve in the given scenario. Don’t be afraid to ask any clarifying questions.

Even if you don’t know HOW to solve the issue, give them the APPROACH you might use. Discuss the trade-offs of the approach (authority to act/staff conflict/time/space/complexity of issue/likely consequences of two different courses of action and so on).

They are more likely to be interested in your thought processes and approach than the ultimate solution you propose.

Create a bank of pre-rehearsed answers for standard questions.

Give job hunting dedicated time

Make sure you have enough time in your schedule to invest in your job search process. You should be checking job ads every single day.

Set aside necessary money for travel expenses (you may have to pay fares if the job interview is distant).

Be prepared to get on the bus, train, plane or drive halfway to the moon and back to attend interviews. Be on time, even if it means being an hour early.

Always, always call if you are going to be late or cannot make it – whatever the reason.

Get well informed

You need to treat every job interview as a test of your knowledge – and study for it.

Read articles or borrow books from the library about the industry in which you are seeking a position.

You need to be informed about the main issues facing that industry; the global implications to Australian businesses, the main problems your organisation is likely to be facing in their marketplace – even if it doesn’t directly relate to your particular position. What is government policy relating to that particular industry? What is the ‘bible’ for that industry? Read it!

Follow these tips and you will be prepared and relaxed for any interview, which will significantly increase your chances of getting that job. Good luck in your next interview!

Disagreements at work are inevitable – what to do

Most of us spend a considerable percentage of our time at work.

Most of us spend a considerable percentage of our time at work. Unfortunately, for quite a few of us, that time, eight hours a day, 40-something hours a week, can be a living hell.

In too many workplaces, the pervading culture is that it’s a war zone, not a co-operative endeavour. Competition for advancement is one thing; ratbag backstabbing skulduggery is altogether another. But in too many environments, it’s the law of the jungle that prevails.

So, it’s a management problem? True. And it’s also true that in some workplaces it’s management itself that is the problem. But attitudes need to change all the way down the ladder if ‘work’ is not to be a toxic environment.

Maybe, just for a start, the language needs to be modified. The word most commonly used in discussion of workplace toxicity is ‘conflict’. It might take the fever out of a situation if it was referred to as ‘disagreement’ and accepted as inevitable. And, of course, it needs also to be recognised that everyone’s entitled to their view.

A common situation in which workplace ‘conflict’ arises is when there’s a radical alteration in management structure. We might call this the ‘Superman Syndrome’. The business isn’t doing well, morale is low, the future bleak; the operation stumbles along from day to day. In comes the new-broom hero: There’s going to be some big changes made. There will be one way to do things: her way, or his way. It’s a matter of shape up or ship out.

This is an extreme example maybe. But that’s the ethos that governs very many workplaces.

Change is imposed without consultation. It’s enforced by warnings, threats and punishments, up to and including dismissal. Life can become, literally, a fight for survival.

Some organisations have codes in place to eliminate bullying and harassment. But more often than not, the boss is exempted – and there’s a trickle-down effect. At best, it may be that coercion replaces bullish command as a management method.

So, just for a start, the fundamental perceptions need to be adjusted. The key word is ‘empathy’. The bad seed may be planted at the very first encounter.

“I’m the boss,” Mr or Ms Management assumes. “I am a superior being in relation to this mere Worker Bee.”  

“He/she’s a boss,” Worker Bee assumes. “He/she’s a bully who thinks he/she’s better than me.”

It’s assumed from the outset that they have nothing at all in common: they’re members of different species.

It may seem to be stating the obvious, but wouldn’t things work better if they talked to each other? And things would work better still if they actually listened to each other.

If Mr or Ms Management accepts that Worker Bee may have views on the way things are run and that those views might frame a contribution to the operation, that shifts the relationship away from the customary war footing. If Worker Bee accepts that Mr or Ms Management has a job to do, that he or she is the one who has to make the final decision, then a truce becomes possible.

Both sides need to be prepared to listen. Both sides need to recognise that they have the right to speak to the other and be listened to.

Maybe business organisations, be they corporations or backyard workshop operations, also hospitals, universities, schools etc., need to function more like families than military establishments.

Ah, but then, some families are as dysfunctional as the most blinkered, brutish sweatshop. The same things apply in that situation too. Attitudes need to change. Ears need to listen, mouths need to be permitted to speak.           

Pollyanna pie-in-the sky? All too simple? But maybe life doesn’t need to be as complicated as we so often make it.

Get behind workplace flexibility – or lose out

Diversity Council Australia (DCA) has developed online resources to help organisations build flexible teams, jobs and organisations.

Article 2 get flexible thumbnail
Diversity Council Australia (DCA) has developed online resources to help organisations build flexible teams, jobs and organisations.

The Future-Flex resources are adaptable to different industry sectors and we have written about many of them in previous issues.

They can help make the dream of flexibility a mainstream element of any workplace and we encourage our working carers to share them with their managers.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see workplace flexibility implemented across the entire workplace?

For example, if you want to design a particular role to be more flexible, you can use the Future-Flex Tool 2. It uses a ‘work design’ mindset to step you through a process of (re)designing an individual’s job for flexibility.

About job design

Job design means designing an individual’s job to enable flexibility. This involves restructuring the parts of a particular job (e.g. tasks, duties, responsibilities, location, timing) to improve the performance and wellbeing of the organisation, the team, and individuals.

Future-Flex 2 Tool takes individual employees through six steps to re-design their job. Steps 1 to 5 can be done by employees by themselves or with a team member if this is easier.

In the final Step 6, the employee discusses their job design proposal with a trusted team member (if they have not done this already) and then their manager.

Here are the steps:

Step 1: what are your job characteristics?

Describe the main characteristics of your job. For example, your job title, key job/work outcomes, job location and timing, and the flexibility of your job, team and organisation.

Step 2: what are your main tasks, responsibilities & connections?

List your main job tasks and responsibilities. Estimate the percentage of time and energy you give to each task. Rate how important each task is to achieving your job/work outcomes.

List your main job connections. Your job connections are the people you need to connect with (have on-going relationships with) to deliver your job/work outcomes. Rate how important each connection is to achieving your job/work outcomes.

Step 3: what are the flexible parts of your job?

Identify which job tasks, responsibilities, and/or connections could be changed to be more flexible. Try to be open-minded and creative about your job and possible changes. Remember, the aim is to make changes which maintain or improve performance and wellbeing – your own and that of your team and organisation. What type of flexibility would you like (e.g. greater control of shifts, working from more than one location)? Keep this in mind to create ways to make your job tasks, responsibilities, and/or connections more flexible. See the Future-Flex Getting Creative Guide for ideas (link below).

Step 4: design your job for flexibility!  

Create your re-designed job. Use your findings from the Step 3 to summarise your re-designed job. As part of this, redefine your job’s characteristics and main tasks, responsibilities and/or connections (where relevant), and the job flexibility you propose.

Step 5: what are the opportunities and implications?

Identify the positive impacts of your proposed re-design – for yourself, your team, and your organisation (e.g. Are there any financial savings such as better productivity or reduced office space?)

Identify and address any negative impacts – for yourself, your team and your organisation (e.g. Are there any costs relating to back-filling roles or providing new equipment?)

Step 6: discuss and finalise your new flexible job design

Talk about your proposed design with a trusted team-mate. Refine your proposed design based on the feedback provided by your team-mate.

Talk about your proposed design with your immediate manager or your team (if you or your manager is keen to take a team-based approach to flexible work).

Future-Flex is a partnership initiative between DCA, the Retail Council, National Australia Bank, Allens, IBM, BAE Systems Australia and IAG, which generates practical guidance for managers, teams and individuals on how to implement and mainstream workplace flexibility through work design.

You can download a synopsis of the report here: