Dominic Irvine

Member Article

Driving success in the workplace

In many industries, there is a clear recognition of the dangers of fatigue. There is legislation in place to protect workers to ensure they are not asked to do too much. Such industries include aviation and transport. Pilots and drivers of heavy goods vehicles are not allowed to exceed a set number of hours in any 24 hour period. There is also an expectation of those working in such industries that they take care of themselves to ensure they are fit for work. This makes good sense - for the individuals concerned, for their customers and for their employers. But why stop there? Pilots and HGV drivers are not the only people who could make a catastrophic decision if tired.

I’m okay – honest

In the war to offer ever more features, car manufacturers have for some time used safety as a key battleground. In the last few years, this has focused on driver fatigue. Again, this makes good sense as fatigue is a major cause of accidents on the roads. Car manufacturers have done this in several ways. Firstly, by comparing the way the car is being driven against a ‘normal’ driving pattern and alerting drivers when their pattern becomes erratic and secondly, by examining the movement of the head and the blink rate of the driver. Changes in the number of blinks and the duration of the blink can indicate increasing levels of fatigue. Whilst for some this might be somewhat annoying, the manufacturers are at least making an attempt to help people realise when they are no longer in a fit state to be driving and have an increased risk of injury to themselves and others. However, these mechanisms are not foolproof and can be affected by the individual intentionally driving badly or even blinking more slowly. Whilst useful, they are not wholly reliable.

To be clear suffering from fatigue, and in particular sleep deprivation, means you are much more likely to have an accident and the quality of your decision-making is likely to be degraded to that of a person who is drunk (see our earlier blog on this topic). Just as it makes sense to have some indication when you are no longer fit to drive, it would make sense to have the same indication that you are not fit to work. Ideally, it would be a mechanism that is outside the control of the individual and provides a direct insight into their mental state. This is because we have all had conversations with people who we know are too tired. Asked about whether they should be doing what they are doing they’ll respond, “I’m fine, I’ll be all right” when quite clearly they are not and won’t be okay. In a similar way, you can think of yourself as slim as you want but analysis of skinfold will provide unequivocal data about your percentage of body fat. Equally, your arithmetic reasoning can be quantitatively tested. We need a similar system that takes out the ambiguity when measuring fatigue.

Into the future

The eyes offer one such possibility of removing uncertainty. They are a direct link with the central nervous system. The eye stops, focuses on something, then moves and focuses on something else. This is known as saccades. Changes in the average speed and the maximum speed at which the eye moves are indicators of mental fatigue. Saccades are outside of our control and therefore cannot be manipulated by conscious effort. There are changes in the way the pupils respond which can indicate fatigue. Another is the activity of certain brainwaves. An increase in theta waves, for example, is associated with mental fatigue. Measuring brain waves is done using electroencephalogram (EEG) devices. Once the province of the scientists with access to a room shielded from electrical interference, EEG devices are now available to consumers for assisting with meditation, or for game playing. As technology develops, these devices are growing in sophistication, usable in more environments and decreasing in cost.

Fit for work?

My suggestion is we take the next step and use these same tools to assess fitness for work of all staff. This may mean that the parent of a new child may be determined not fit for very much due to a lack of sleep, but better than we know that this is the case than they make a poor decision that leads to a mishap, or even worse, death. It would also be a useful tool to ensure someone was not being overworked. Constructive dismissal lawsuits occur sometimes as a result of unreasonable pressure being placed on someone. Being able to monitor the mental fatigue an individual is experiencing, and adjusting the workload up or down accordingly, may avoid such lawsuits because people are managed more effectively. A simple technology solution is never the answer in isolation. The nature of human beings and of work is complex, with many factors at play. Just as taking your temperature gives you a good clue as to whether you are under the weather, so too could eye scanning give a clue as to whether you are overdoing things a bit. Whatever the solution we employ, bringing some objective data to helping people cope with work will benefit us all.

As a postscript, it is interesting to speculate on how the increasing availability of biometric feedback devices such as heart rate monitors, blood pressure devices, sleep trackers, EEG devices and eye scanning glasses will combine to provide real-time data on both our wellbeing and our current state in a way that helps improve our productivity as well as reducing accidents.

© 2018 Dominic Irvine, All rights asserted.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Dominic Irvine .

Explore these topics

Our Partners

Top Ten Most Read