Five questions about boredom, fatigue and vigilance

Below are five questions posed by a safety colleague, and some brief responses.

1. How different are boredom and fatigue?
Both affect our ability to pay attention – to notice something that may need attention – but they are different in terms of their causes and can occur completely independently. A person can be bored during a period of low activity, but not fatigued. Prolonged boredom, tends to result in fatigue, but so can high workload, lack of sleep or disruption to sleep patterns, or stress. Other than sleep or rest, there is little that you can do to manage fatigue effectively while on position, while more can be done to tackle boredom and stay in the loop. So preventing and managing fatigue is a key priority to ensure that people remain able to deal with unusual events.

2. Is low workload more dangerous than high workload?
Attention is stretched by both ‘overload’ and ‘underload’. Both require hard work and can be stressful, particularly if there are safety consequences when something is missed. Which is more dangerous will depend on the situation and the person (for instance personality, experience and levels of stress and fatigue), but skilled professionals tend to cope better with higher workload up to the point of overload, when performance degrades more dramatically.

3. How to remain aware and vigilant for unusual situations?
Ask colleagues – people develop different visual and mental strategies that may not be obvious from the outside. But applied research using eye movement tracking gives some tips in terms of scanning. So-called “active scanning” can help to counteract degraded vigilance under low workload situations. With active scanning, people scan displays proactively in sequences or cycles depending on the traffic situation, linking specific information from different information sources. The scanning is more strategic, and helps to anticipate developing situations.

4. When are we most and least vigilant?
In a non-shiftwork environment we could highlight some times of day when we are least alert, especially during the very early morning hours, but shiftwork is a fact of life for many workers working a 24-hour operation. What we can say is that we are most vigilant when well rested, engaged and interested in the activity, not distracted (e.g. TV, radio, visitors) or preoccupied with other thoughts, well hydrated, and well supported by colleagues and supervisors.

5. Is the theoretical human performance knowledge adding value?
Yes, but not nearly as much as it should. So much is known about human performance that it seems that policy and practice are decades behind. But so much that is published is irrelevant to complex systems and activities, does not offer solutions, and technology and practices change fast and do not wait for research to catch up. Much theoretical knowledge in human factors comes from sterile experimental environments, normally focusing on one issue (e.g. vigilance) while ‘controlling’ (or ignoring) some of the most relevant real-life issues that interact to shape performance in the real world (e.g. motivation, risk, teamwork, supervision, background shift-fatigue). The hard part for practitioners is evaluating what aspects of the research are relevant, piecing them together and drawing out practical implications. With this in mind, the most directly useful human performance knowledge is gained by spending time with end users, listening to and observing them at work, and working with end users and other stakeholders to find solutions to human performance issues.

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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