Would you feel comfortable telling your boss you are fatigued?

Working together

A key component to an Ideal Fatigue Risk Management System is the comfort level people experience when reporting their own fatigue levels. Whether people openly and freely report fatigue levels, fatigue risks or other critical information depends highly on an organization’s reporting culture. An Ideal Reporting Culture is one where every person connected with an organization, be it an employee, a Vice President or a contracted worker, feels comfortable reporting safety information[1].

One way to encourage an ideal reporting culture is to ensure that the reporting process feels pleasant. This is positive reinforcement. It is like a little mini-reward for reporting and it increases the likelihood that people will report again. If the reporting process feels unpleasant, people will be much less likely to continue to report.

Consider this scenario. You try your best to obtain eight hours of sleep right before your night duty to prevent fatigue. But the hotel room you were in was not designed for sleep. The blinds let in too much light, you could not control the temperature and the cleaning staff and other guests were making noise in the hall.

You realize that both your sleep quantity and quality have been compromised and that you might be at risk of fatigue during your upcoming night duty. At work you would like to do the “right thing” so you let your dispatcher know that you might be at risk of fatigue. The dispatcher frowns and pulls out a 5 page form and says “Fill this out”. It’s a lengthy form that asks you to provide all sorts of personal information about things like your last medical check up, your age and your medications. You also have to write detailed paragraphs outlining all your activities from the previous three days. At the end of the form you have to select a date and time to meet with your boss to discuss the form and your current fatigue level on a scale of 1 to 3.

The dispatcher sees that you have selected fatigue level 1 to describe how you are feeling right now and says “You are good to go”. You selected 1 because that is how you feel right now and you have heard that if you select 2 or 3 you are pulled out of service and sent home without being paid for tonight’s duty. Plus, reporting for duty in an “unfit” state goes on your personnel file.

Where was the positive reinforcement in this scenario? Is there anything in this reporting process that would leave you with a pleasant feeling? Most of this process would feel like you are being punished for doing the right thing and reporting a risk. Even if your boss is a great person, having to speak to a superior about your fatigue level would feel like punishment.

A better process would be focussed around collaborative problem solving. Consider this scenario. Your hotel sleep has again been compromised and you let the dispatcher know that you might be at risk of fatigue. The dispatcher stops all activities, smiles, and starts exploring your situation through a casual conversation. You have a discussion around your current fatigue level and potential fatigue levels during your upcoming duty. You explore ways to countermeasure the on-duty fatigue and whether they will adequately control the risk. Together you make the decision of whether it will be safe for you to continue with your duty and you know that even if you don’t continue, you will still be paid for the work. At the end of the conversation, you work together to record the decision and some basic fatigue risk factor data on a short 1 page form. At the end of the form you tick off the box that says “Please let me know what is being done with this report”.

The next evening, a colleague with a similar ranking as you and who sits on your organization’s Fatigue Safety Advisory Group (FSAG) calls you. Your colleague makes sure you are Ok and that your duty was safe and then says “Thanks for providing the fatigue data last night. We will discuss it at the FSAG meeting next week and I will call you again to let know how the group will use the data to improve safety. Is there any fatigue safety improvement you would like me to suggest at the meeting even if it has nothing to do with last night’s data?”

The second scenario should feel much more pleasant because there are positive rewards for reporting like:

• Dispatcher provides you will undivided attention…and smiles• Casual conversation to explore the risks• Collaborative exploration of fatigue countermeasures• Collaborative decision around continuing with the duty• No fear of losing pay• No fear of having to speak with your boss or any other person if you don’t want to• Rapid and friendly response from your colleague about the data• A promise to provide you with more information that will show you how your effort in reporting will be used to improve safety

When building your reporting process be sure to build in positive reinforcement and consider how people will experience or perceive the process.


[1] For a discussion of reporting culture see: Reason, J. (1997). Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.