The business of fatigue

Have you ever had that feeling when exercising that you simply can’t do any more? Your body has nothing left to give? Your muscles ache to the extent that even small movements are uncomfortable?

Have you ever had that feeling when exercising that you simply can’t do any more? Your body has nothing left to give? Your muscles ache to the extent that even small movements are uncomfortable? 

If you could do more, you would, but you can’t? You, like many others could be forgiven if you believed that the constraining factor on your performance is your physical fitness. It turns out that’s not quite the case. The evidence emerging from research is that mental fatigue is the controlling variable in physical performance rather than purely physical factors. Your tolerance for exercise is impacted by how mentally tired you are. Understanding this may go some way to explaining why most of us who work in business struggle to find time to do the recommended amount of exercise per week – it’s not that we are physically incapable but that we are too mentally fatigued to perform physically. It helps make sense of why after something seemingly inactive as flying can leave us needing to rest rather than wanting to exercise – the stress of travelling has been mentally tiring.

Is it worth it?
As I have already written about in my articles on habits, when we are tired we will default back to our habits and if these are bad habits, like reaching for the bottle of wine rather than our trainers, then we will have a glass of Chateau ‘Something Nice’ rather than a run. As with most things, it’s a bit more complex than this. Your willingness to push yourself is a function of your perception of how much effort is required and the benefit from expending that effort. The point at which the anticipated benefit is exceeded by the effort required is the point you will probably stop. For example, you get up before breakfast, jump into your running gear and open the front door to find it’s raining hard. If you are training for a marathon you will probably head out the door and do your session. If, on the other hand, you have no event and running is simply something to do to keep fit, you may well go back to bed. For the marathon runners, the benefit exceeds the amount of work required. For the keep-fit jogger, the effort required does not justify the return.

Fit for work
Whilst in business we are not elite athletes nor trying to be, work still requires physical effort, be that standing to deliver a presentation or walking around the factory floor to check in with team members. Doing these things may be physically and mentally draining. Undertaking physical activities can impact our mental capacity – we all know the sensation of being too tired to think properly. So we need to be ‘fit enough’ to be able to cope with the physical demands our job places on us in order to be able to cope with the mental fatigue that would otherwise constrain our performance. If we are fit to begin with, the erosion of physical capacity brought on by mental fatigue will impact us less. And, if we see a real value in doing what we are doing, we will persist for longer. In addition, there are things we can do to help reduce or manage mental fatigue. Research evidence supports the use of techniques such as goal setting, imagery self-talk and other tools can help impact our ability to sustain effort.

Whole system thinking
All of this is further evidence that in the future, the way we manage and reward employee performance will be what they deliver, how they deliver it and the things they do from a whole system perspective to ensure they are operating at their optimum – such as getting enough sleep, eating healthily and doing enough exercise. This is more than an annual health check, as all this does is provide a single snapshot of the things you have already done to help or hinder your current physical and mental performance. Whereas being able to quantify the time spent sleeping, resting, what you eat and the exercise you have done day by day, enables a value to be attributed to these things, as well as spot the signs early enough of the onset of fatigue and manage it. A healthy person not only suffers less from absenteeism, stress related issues, heart disease and type 2 diabetes (to name just a few benefits) they also have the potential to be more profitable employees.

Resilience or fatigue
Mental resilience is the hot topic doing the rounds. In essence, it is your ability to cope with sustained levels of stress. For me this is akin to administering first aid. Far better to understand the psychobiological relationship between fitness and fatigue and develop the physical and mental capability and capacity to convert a wearisome workload into a doable day job, thus putting resilience into its rightful place as a stopgap solution until the root causes have been addressed. 

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6 December 2023


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