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  • Mark Myers

Be Alert: Beyond Fatigue Lies Burnout & Exhaustion

Updated: Feb 20

Two years after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, inflation, money issues and the war in Ukraine have pushed U.S. stress to alarming levels, according to polls conducted for the American Psychological Association (APA).

A Harris Poll on behalf of APA, conducted March 1–3, 2022, revealed striking findings: more adults rated inflation and issues tied to the invasion of Ukraine as greater stressors than any other issue surveyed in the 15-year history of APAs Stress in AmericaTM poll. [i] Top sources of stress were the rise in prices of everyday items due to inflation (cited by 87%), followed by supply chain issues (81%), global uncertainty (81%), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (80%) and potential retaliation from Russia (e.g., in the form of cyberattacks or nuclear threats) (80%).

APAs Chief Executive Officer, Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, is calling for immediate steps to protect mental health as geopolitical turmoil, money issues, increased anxiety, and stress pile on. “Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years, but these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.”[i

As safety managers and HR professionals, we should apply this backdrop to our workplace, where our executives, pilots, mechanics, clinicians, schedulers, and others continue to work through a pandemic recovery , while caring for people’s lives with the highest standards of care. For those of us who are experiencing higher fatigue risk management scores, and recording more complex crew performance issues, APAs cumulative stress warnings should trigger us to begin actively monitoring our employees for indications of burnout or emotional exhaustion.

Understanding the difference between tiredness, fatigue, burnout, and exhaustion is very important, as they are brought on by different issues and demand different responses and areas of professional treatment.

Feeling Totally Tired vs. Fatigued

Feeling tired (tiredness) is a state in which one desires to sleep or rest, be this from having a large lunch, too much time in the sun, or experiencing restless sleep from the night before. However, the condition is not chronic, while pushing the body into a state of extreme weariness. This state may temporarily impair the body’s ability to function. Feeling fatigued involves measuring mental and physical tiredness that inhibits the body’s ability to perform effectively and safely. It can be described as combinations and degrees of mental and physical weariness which extends beyond normal tiredness.

Hazards -Fatigue usually results in impaired standards of operation with increased likeliness of error[iii]. For example:

  • Increased reaction time

  • Reduced attentiveness

  • Impaired memory

  • Withdrawn mood

Scenarios -

  • Inaccurate flying

  • Missed radio calls

  • Symptoms of equipment malfunctions being missed

  • Routine tasks being performed inaccurately or even forgotten

  • Falling asleep - either a short "micro-sleep" or for longer periods

  • Poor decision making

  • Slow reaction to changing situation

  • Failure to notice an impending confliction

  • Loss of situational awareness

  • Forgetfulness

Being Burnt Out Burnout is becoming a growing threat to the welfare of employees and to the culture of the companies in which they work. One difficulty in managing burnout is knowing what to look out for; what are the signs, passive and active, of burnout and when does excessive fatigue and stress become more serious?

Burnout is brought on from prolonged periods of stress combined with elements of workplace control and frustration. Organizations with burned-out staff experience low productivity, fewer working days, lower profits, reduced talent, and damage to corporate reputation.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North developed the 12-stage model of burnout that affects so many professionals. The following factors are recognized as early predictors of burnout:[iv]

Hazards -

  • Compulsion to Prove Oneself

  • Working Harder

  • Neglecting Needs

  • Displacement of Conflicts

  • Revision of Values

  • Denial of Emerging Problems

  • Withdrawal

  • Odd Behavior Changes

  • Depersonalization

  • Inner Emptiness

  • Depression

Scenarios -

  • Job demands that exceed human limits

  • Role conflict leading to a perceived lack of control; being under pressure from several, often incompatible, demands that compete with one another.

  • Insufficient reward and lack of recognition for the work performed, devaluing both the work and the worker.

  • Lack of support from the manager or team, consistently associated with exhaustion.

  • Work perceived as unfair or inequitable, caused by an effort–reward imbalance. The relationship between the individual and the work environment leads to feelings of imbalance or a bad fit. Such incongruity connects with excessive job demands and perceived unfairness.

Experiencing Emotional Exhaustion

When stress begins to accumulate from negative or challenging events in life – that just keep coming, employees can find themselves in a state of feeling emotionally worn out and drained. For most people, emotional exhaustion tends to slowly build up over time and may include elements of emotional, physical, and performance symptoms. Applying fatigue risk management treatments that do not consider the employee’s emotional state, can exacerbate emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion debriefing elements should include:

Hazards -

  • Anxiety

  • Apathy

  • Depression

  • Feeling hopeless

  • Feeling trapped

  • Irritability

  • Lack of motivation

  • Nervousness

  • Tearfulness

  • Chronic Fatigue

  • Recurring Headaches

  • Constant Lack of appetite

  • Sore muscles or tension

Scenarios -

  • Demonstrating lower workplace commitment

  • Outward demonstration of performing duties more slowly and/or omitting procedural steps

  • Increasing frequency of failing to meet deadlines,

  • Performing tasks outside of known limits without concern

Next Steps - Building the case

While utilizing a robust fatigue risk management system and providing optimum working conditions, Safety and HR professionals should update their crew resource management (CRM/AMRM) or Team Resource Management training to promote increased sensitivity and awareness of hazards and symptoms of employee fatigue, burnout, and emotional exhaustion.

Treat Burnout and Emotional Exhaustion Professionally

These conditions require professional treatment using the employee and crew performance information collected within your SMS. This is not the time to merely tell the employee to “take some time off” as in some instances, isolation or task disruption, can exacerbate an employee’s condition. For example, in stressful professional positions, treating burnout and emotional exhaustion may include treating the symptoms, such as drug and alcohol addiction, while treating their underlying causes.

Involve your company’s employee assistance program early, and proactively manage any stigma associated with reaching out to an EAP provider.

Per APAs Dr. Evans, “Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years, but these [Harris poll] data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.”[v]


[i] American Psychological Association (March 2022). Re: Stress in America Money, inflation, war pile on to nation stuck in COVID-19 survival mode, [ii] EurkaAlert! American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), (March, 2022). Re: Inflation, war push stress to alarming levels at two-year COVID-19 anniversary, [iii] Skybrary, Human Performance – Aeromedical Fatigue Description, [iv]Providence Treatment, Addiction Treatment – (January 22, 2020). Re: THE 12 STAGES OF BURNOUT | IDENTIFICATION, PREVENTION & TREATMENT, [v] Ibid, endnote ii.

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