Why you’re always tired at work: The dangers of work fatigue (and how to avoid it)

We’ve all been there. It’s 2 p.m. and lunch is long over. But instead of feeling recharged and focused, you’re ready to curl up in a corner, turn off the lights and take a nap. No one will notice, right?

While it’s completely normal to hit the dreaded afternoon slump, what happens when this feeling is around all day, every day? 

Workplace fatigue isn’t just being physically tired—it’s being mentally exhausted.

Not only are your energy levels low, but so is your motivation. When we’re fatigued like this, it can make it difficult to concentrate and stay organized. And when it lasts for days or weeks, despite adequate sleep, it can leave you feeling anxious, depressed, and on the road to burnout.

Anyone can feel tired at work. It’s when those feelings of tiredness persist that you need to take action. Let’s take a closer look at what causes work fatigue and what you can do to stop being so sleepy at work.

RescueTime helps you take back control of your time each day and build better workday habits. Find out more and try it for free today!

What is work fatigue and how is it different than just being tired? 

If you’re tired, you might feel that way for a day or two, but it will usually resolve itself after a couple of nights of quality sleep. Fatigue, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated.

So what is work fatigue? 

The Mayo Clinic defines work fatigue as, “unrelenting exhaustion that isn’t relieved by rest, a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time, reducing your energy, motivation, and concentration.”

Much like burnout, work fatigue is a constant state of tiredness that won’t go away. Eventually, it seeps into other aspects of your life and makes it harder to focus, feel motivated, and even disconnect from work.

What causes basic tiredness to become work fatigue?

Scientists don’t actually know why working a desk job makes us feel fatigued, but there are several variables that could play a role in this condition.

For one, the changing nature of work is redefining our daily schedules and making it more difficult to re-energize even on our days off.

In fact, the average American worker puts in 137 more hours per year than someone in the same industry in Japan (and nearly 500 more hours per year than employees in France!) While most people do at least one hour of work on 50% of all weekends.

Remote work also plays a part in this change. While remote workers claim to be more productive they’re also more likely to work overtime and less likely to take a day off. Remote workers also tend to work without a schedule, making it even more challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance that prevents fatigue and burnout.

This isn’t to say that work fatigue is a consequence of modern working culture. In fact, there are many other factors that contribute to our daily weariness. Here are just a few:

Not enough or poor sleep

One of the most common (and obvious) causes of work fatigue is a lack of adequate sleep. In the U.S., roughly 40% of employees experience sleep loss. In fact, so many people aren’t getting enough sleep that the CDC has declared it a public health emergency.

Modern work schedules often force us to override our normal sleep patterns with more than 43% of workers saying regularly feel sleep-deprived.

If you’re just tired at work, a night or two of good sleep will usually fix the problem. But if you’re experiencing work fatigue, you won’t feel better no matter how much you sleep.

Insufficient downtime

The average American spends upwards of 10 hours a day staring at a screen. While we can blame a portion of that on work, most of us also spend our off-hours with our nose firmly attached to our mobile device or laptop.

Not only does this impact our ability to get proper rest (devices that emit blue light like phones, tablets, and laptops can reduce sleep quality and increase depression, anxiety, and stress) but studies show that being unable to fully disconnect from work is a major source of ongoing work-related fatigue and even burnout.  

Going against your natural “Productivity curve”

We all go through a series of energy highs and lows during the day. This is thanks to something called the Circadian rhythm—an internal clock that cycles through periods of alertness and fatigue.

Going against this cycle can increase your likelihood of work fatigue and also leave you feeling frustrated and burnt out. 

Worst of all, work fatigue can quickly lead to burnout

The main problem here isn’t that these factors make you feel tired at work, but that they can become so stressful that you hit burnout. More than just being tired and unmotivated, burnout is constant fatigue paired with a sense of cynicism, detachment from work, and a lack of accomplishment. 

5 ways to fight work fatigue and reclaim your energy all day long

We all feel tired at work. However, if the problem is long term, it’s time to look at ways to reclaim your energy. First, determine the cause of your fatigue. Then, pinpoint a solution that will work for you.

1. Find and work during your peak productive hours

Once you determine your body’s natural Circadian rhythm, you can learn to work during the hours when you’re most alert. Simply put, this means scheduling deep, focused work when your energy levels are naturally higher.

The RescueTime Productivity by Time of Day report shows you trends about when you’re most productive each day.

When your energy levels are low, such as during the afternoon slump, switch your focus to less-important tasks like answering emails and returning phone calls.

2. Manage your motivation

We mentioned earlier how a lack of motivation can impact your energy levels and cause fatigue. But motivation is a fickle thing. If you wait for it to appear, you’ll find yourself waiting forever.

Instead, you need to engineer your workspace and your brain to self-motivate. Start by changing up your workspace to reduce clutter and make it more action-oriented. Clutter provides distraction and tends to make us unmotivated.

You can also start motivating yourself by implementing a five-minute rule.  If you find yourself procrastinating on a project, spend just five minutes on it. After five minutes, you’ll usually end up doing the whole thing anyway.

Finally, create rituals and routines to signal to your brain that it’s time to start something new.

The new RescueTime for your Calendar is a powerful way to build routines and rituals. Schedule your work and use #focustime to automatically block distractions for the duration of the event.

Your brain loves repetition, so if you spend five minutes cleaning your desk before it’s time to start work, or five minutes responding to emails after each break, you are training your brain to expect this activity before you begin something more mentally strenuous.

3. Take more breaks during the day

If you’re tired at work, why not take a break? A power nap, just 15 to 20 minutes of sleep, can boost alertness and improve performance (while longer naps—called slow-wave sleep—are excellent for decision-making skills).

Taking breaks during the day isn’t just good for your productivity or combating fatigue—it’s instinctual. Sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman found that the human body follows a rest-activity cycle every 90-120 minutes. At night, that cycle takes you through the different stages of sleep. During the day, it manages your energy and alertness levels.

What this means is that your body craves a break to rest and recover after about 90 minutes of work. Once you understand this rhythm, you can use it to your advantage by scheduling your breaks so you are resting and recovering when your body needs it most.

4. Set limits on your working time

Work-life balance is crucial for fighting work fatigue. Yet few people set proper limits to their working day. Instead, we let our phones and email seep into our personal time and never fully disconnect from work.

On the other hand, leisure time—especially spent on hobbies and other meaningful tasks—helps up become more creative, focused, and even more productive the next day. 

One of the easiest ways to make more time for these activities is to use a commitment device like RescueTime Alerts.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to spend more time on your musical hobby. Instead of practicing by yourself you could invite a friend over to play with you. Or, you could set a RescueTime Goal of more than 1 hour on audio editing outside of work hours.

Alerts and FocusTime are RescueTime Premium features. Start your free 14-day trial and take back control of your time today!

5. Develop a meditation routine

Finally, some studies have shown that activities like meditation and yoga can help decrease the stress and anxiety that lead to work fatigue.

A regular schedule, either in the morning or before bedtime, can have long-term effects with yoga practitioners reporting 86% more mental clarity compared to their non-practicing counterparts.

Stop feeling so sleepy at work

You don’t have to relegate yourself to feeling tired at work all the time. Instead, determine the cause of your work fatigue and try one of these solutions. 

Create a sleep schedule that’s attuned to your Circadian rhythm. Be sure to take regular breaks and focus on yourself—even if it’s just 30 minutes. And try to incorporate exercise and meditation into your daily routine, which can naturally boost energy and increase positivity.

Doing these things should help you feel more rested and better able to tackle whatever your day throws at you.

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Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a productivity and tech writer published on Lifewire, MakeUseOf, Inc.com and others. To see more of her work, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews

4 comments

  1. In my experience, people who feel tired at work but never at home are responding to something in the work environment. It could be the lighting or air quality, or it could be the office politics.

    1. Hey Silvia. That can definitely be the case. Our environment is often the “invisible hand” that determines our ability to focus and be productive. It’s important not to overlook that when trying to find more energy and motivation during the day.

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