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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 3: The Fatigue is REAL

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
December 22, 2020


The Scenario

As COVID drags on and days are getting shorter and colder, a general sense of fatigue is growing within the workforce. Many employees are sharing that they feel drained and tired. When asked by leaders what is happening, the typical response is, “Not sure; most likely the weather is changing.” A couple of leaders on the team are expressing an increased level of concern about the number of employees reporting fatigue. The CEO, a compassionate and caring leader, listens carefully and suggests that her leadership team keep asking why employees are more fatigued, as she does not think the weather is the problem. “We are in a pandemic, people are working remotely, people are worried about their jobs and financial health. I am thinking there is another reason why more employees are feeling worn out.” The head of human resources agrees and decides to do a quick pulse check to find out when employees are plugging in and plugging out of work. She discovers that the average employee working from home is putting in an additional seven hours each week. In an organization of 277 employees, that is nearly 2,000 hours a week of additional productivity, while the organization is barely keeping its head above water. She pauses before going to chat with her CEO because she is unsure how to advise senior leaders, knowing everyone is focused on keeping the doors open in a pandemic.

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

It is not unusual that many employees at the beginning of COVID and through the summer months were giving it their all. However, an additional 2,000 hours per week is not sustainable and the question leaders need to ask is “how many of these extra hours are actually productive? Is there a possibility that it is taking employees longer to get things done, and organize their thoughts?”  Nine months into the pandemic some employees may be suffering from virtual fatigue, brain fog, sensory overload and confusion, stress, burnout, and/or exhaustion.  The only way to know where an employee is on the mental health continuum is to ask them where they are at and how they are managing those extra hours because it is not sustainable.  Managers need to be trained to start the conversation so that they can determine who is at risk and be able to support them since every person will have a unique circumstance.  Companies and managers no longer have the luxury of outsourcing mental health, instead, they need to be present and engaged in the conversation with employees.  This holiday season (or after the break) many businesses will slow down. Therefore, this could be your opportunity to grant the gift of time, if possible, to your overworked employees. Find ways to give your employees mini-breaks from the grind or your organization will risk a drop in performance in the months to come.

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

Fatigued employees are more at risk of accidents and lower productivity levels.  Addressing fatigue begins with acknowledging human capacity is finite. Employees who feel overworked and fatigued need to learn to make sleep a priority and get support from leadership to live their lives outside of core work hours, guilt-free.

When most employees are reporting fatigue, an employer should focus on getting them more structure. Why? So that they are crystal clear on the employer’s expectations around plugging in and unplugging from work. Senior leaders must accept that employees can’t burn hot for an extended period without being at risk of burnout, accidents, or mental health concerns that can lead to disability leave. The number of hours employees work does not always equal more productivity.

The Takeaways

  • Consider doing a pulse check to obtain a baseline of how fatigued the average employee feels. Fatigue is a psychosocial hazard that if not addressed can negatively impact employees’ health and productivity.
  • Define and communicate expectations for when employees are to be online and when they are expected to unplug. Rested employees are happier and more productive than those who are tired.
  • Encourage leaders in one-on-one meetings to reinforce senior leadership’s message on the value and importance of unplugging.
  • Explore with employees their interest in having a webinar on sleep hygiene. It is common for some employees who are worried or overtired to struggle with getting a quality night’s sleep. Quality of sleep is more important than length; six good hours are better than eight hours of tossing and turning.


Want to join the conversation? Tell us your story about mental health in the workplace by emailing

Does your organization require training or tools to better support mental health in-house? Contact us to discuss your unique challenges and to arrange a free demo to learn how our integrated services can help.


Missed the previous series? You can read them here: chapter 1 and chapter 2.


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