Burning Out is Not A Cool Way to Live

how fatigue can be fatal

On the morning of 12th December 1988, people in London headed to work. It was going to be another day at the office. Or so they thought.

Just after 8 AM, The London Fire Brigade’s Green Watch received two urgent messages through the teleprinter. The first one read, “This is a major incident — initiate major incident procedure.” The other one followed immediately: “two commuter trains in collision, five carriages involved, approximately 150 casualties, unknown number of people trapped, efforts being made to release.”

Here’s what had happened.

A crowded passenger train traveling from Poole, Dorset, had rammed into the back of a stationary train from Basingstoke outside Clapham Junction Station. Carriages got ripped open and derailed. Some carriages found themselves in the way of an empty train coming from the opposite direction.

35 people were killed while 484 sustained injuries.

Passengers who could leave on foot described how carriages were sent hurtling into the air before crashing back down after the collision. (source)

A thorough investigation followed. The reason for this tragic event emerged as a wiring fault which showed a “clear” signal to the driver of the Poole train.

A technician had installed new wiring but left the old one in place. Removing it wouldn’t have taken more than five minutes. A tiny error led to massive loss of lives.

This ‘error’ was not because of lack of expertise, but because of fatigue. The technician had performed the task during his thirteenth consecutive week of twelve-hour-a-day, seven-day-workweeks.

What Causes Fatigue?

Fatigue comes from lack of energy. It can be acute (lasting up to a month) or chronic (lasting from one to six months or longer).

We know fatigue by many conditions: exhaustion, lethargy, weakness, sleepiness, sleeplessness, and so on. But these are all outcomes. And they’re not all. Fatigue can lead to outcomes with much larger consequences.

Many outcomes like poor investments, “buyers regret”, failing to stick to a diet, and procrastinating, affect us at an individual level.

But some outcomes affect others as well. Family and friends bearing the brunt of our exhaustion, brief “crimes in passion”, poor libido, and strained relationships are some examples.

Sometimes, the outcomes turn catastrophic. Like Clapham Junction. Or a decision that wipes out the entire savings of a family in a single shot.

Think about the actions you look the last time you were exhausted or hangry (angry because you were actually hungry). In hindsight, could you have handled the situation better? Do you feel like you were not you in that situation?

That’s what fatigue does.

Fatigue is of two types — physical and psychological.

Physical Fatigue

This occurs due to muscle exhaustion.

During the industrial age, laborers worked a backbreaking 70-80 hours each week. The resulting exhaustion didn’t just reduce productivity; it also created deep unrest among workers.

Finally, in 1926, Henry Ford applied Robert Owens’ phrase “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” to his automotive factories. Other companies around the world followed suit, and fatigue levels dropped.

But in the knowledge age, we experience physical fatigue for the opposite reason.

We’ve reduced our physical work to dismally low levels. So much that our muscles get strained even with small activities. A WHO study stated that 81 percent of adolescent children aged 11-17 globally are insufficiently physically active. This figure stays more-or-less the same as age increases.

Psychological fatigue

This type is more rampant in today’s times. It occurs due to stress, which is the single largest reason why we cannot enjoy the same energy levels as children.

FOMO, information overload, increased responsibilities at work, loans and mortgages, and stressed relations take up so much mind space that people ignore socializing or trying new things just for fun — things that make them feel good.

Doing more of what they don’t enjoy and less of what they do increases short-term boredom and adds to psychological fatigue.

This leads to a drop in cognitive performance and decision-making abilities. As I mentioned above, fatigue can make us do things we regret.

the results of feeling tired

Fatigue is Not to Blame

You cannot blame fatigue for momentary lapses in judgment and expect life to give you a re-test.

It doesn’t work that way.

Yes, fatigue causes us to slip up. But it’s not responsible for our slip-ups. Fatigue is an indication that we’re not taking care of ourselves. It shows that we’re doing little of what feels fulfilling and a lot of everything else.

Managing fatigue starts with increasing your threshold for physical, psychological and emotional stress. The higher your threshold, the higher your energy levels in stressful situations. This allows you to maneuver through them in rational ways.

An increase in threshold begins with a good diet and regular exercise. A good diet stocks your body with the energy it needs to stay active. This, coupled with regular exercise, stretches your mental threshold as well. According to research, people who exercise regularly start eating healthier, increase their ability to focus, and curb their impulsive behavior.

Another technique to increase your threshold for psychological stress is to manage your average performance.

You don’t need to maintain your focus for ten hours a day, seven days a week. That pace is unsustainable. It leads to burnout and fatigue. Instead, increase your average performance to become a long-term racehorse.

Being consistently average won’t show much in the short term. But in the long run, it will yield remarkable results.

Focus hard. In reasonable bursts. One day at a time. — Cal Newport

Rest is equally important.

Take time off from your challenges. Do something refreshing without posting about it on social media.

Rest often. Rest before you get tired. — Dale Carnegie

Diet, exercise, and relaxation will improve your emotional threshold as well. But managing your emotions also calls for deliberate practice, just like coding or practicing a musical instrument. Become aware of your emotions and label them.

A journal is a handy tool to label your emotions, uncover why you feel them, and plan steps to handle tough situations better.

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In Conclusion

Fire-fighter Clifford Thompson reached Clapham Junction Station more than three hours after the accident. “In the eerie quiet,” he reminisced, “it was clear that of those remaining, none was alive.”

He has carried out rescue operations in other incidents where people died. But he singled out the Clapham Junction rail crash as the tragedy that was most difficult to take in.

Life is all about balance. If one side tips over too much, you have to overcompensate on the other side. That’s a dysfunctional way to live.

Overworking makes you feel busy in the present moment. But the fatigue it causes presents huge downsides. In the short run, these downsides just slow you down. In the long run, they can be harmful or even fatal. Not just to yourself, but also to others.

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