Looks fine until it is not

In 1954, a series of BOAC DeHavilland Comet aircraft crashes were attributed by a public inquiry to metal fatigue. The stresses of repeated pressures and landings in the aircraft caused a failure in a window in the plane. The planes broke up in flight when experiencing additional stress such as sudden air turbulence. The discovery of this metal fatigue in planes led to a general improvement in aircraft safety and new testing and maintenance routines to catch fatigue before it became disastrous.

Fatigue is more than tiredness. We all get tired when the effort or the duration is large. Fatigue is an extreme response as a consequence of extended stress. Just as metals fatigue and fail, so can individuals and organisations. Running an always on digital and global organisation in a global pandemic is a test of any individual and any organisations ability to avoid fatigue.

There were multiple BOAC plane crashes because it took time to identify metal fatigue as the cause of why the planes broke up in flight. The fatigue was invisible, hidden in the metal. It took engineers to take the planes apart and test the metal to discover the stresses and the dangerous flaws that were developing. People died in at least 3 more crashes after the first because of the inability to anticipate the cause of crashes and the delay taking preventative action.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge when a design is extended without mitigation for the stress of high wind

Henry Petroski’s book “To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure’ is an examination of bridge failures. Petroski highlights that bridges tend to fail when new designs become standards and slowly are extended beyond their initial design. For example, the famous Tacoma Galloping Bridge collapse occurred when the known risk that a suspension bridge to act as a wing in fast air met unusually high speed winds and a lighter than usual bridge. The new bridge was a longer and therefore less stable than usual. The result was a costly and embarrassing disaster.

This desire to do more, to reach further, to last longer and to push harder, creates new stresses and risks that were beyond the focus of the initial designer. Like the Comet crashes, hidden risks and stresses can lead to new forms of fatigue and failure. Petroski discusses the need to understand competing objectives in designs, bound designs to a lifecycle, to engage in testing and prevention to find hidden flaws and to learn from past failures.

We are asking people to work beyond the bounds of our designs for remote work and working from home. This is no longer an emergency response. We are shifting to a point where our patterns of work are enduring and changing for the longer term as organisations make real estate, technology, organisation and other decisions to lock in to new patterns of work.

As we start to redesign the systems of our work, we need to consider again the new stresses caused and the old stresses that are magnified and exacerbated in these changes. We will need new testing and new preventative measures to ensure that individuals and our organisations don’t move from tired and stressed to catastrophic collapse. This time calls for more than just an employee engagement survey. Organisations, managers and colleagues need to be actively involved in considering what their design choices mean for the future of work in their organisation, when those designs might break, what risks are created and what mitigation is required.

Remote work can mean that stresses and failures are hidden until it is too late for individuals and for organisations. Anticipating these issues, factoring them into the design of work and acting on mitigation is critical to prevent catastrophic disasters. Most important of all given we are dealing with humans and not metal, is that we need to have the forums in which to have safe conversations about the risks, mitigation and signs of fatigue. Unlike silent metal, people can help us spot and address these issues early, if we let them and support them to do so.

18 thoughts on “Fatigue

  1. Simon

    Thank you for sharing your wise and thoughtful words. Sorry if I’ve not caught up with things on Twitter but I did want to comment on the blog — if that’s OK.

    You say: “Remote work can mean that stresses and failures are hidden until it is too late for individuals and for organisations.” I’m curious to know what you mean by “too late”. Too late to address the boredom, ennui or depression that may have set in? Or, am I missing something? I think working from home is a mixed bag but for me, it’s more about communication. I’d like to think that if I had a problem that I’d get support and assistance from my line manager and HR. I’m lucky in that as a natural introvert (my wife thinks I should have been a hermit — 🤣) I like the quiet and peace of home but I appreciate that some people may be in dire need of the social connection and camaraderie of the office.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Take care, Julian.

    1. Thanks Julian. There are real benefits from WFH and our work technology that I have advocated for years. I agree communication is part of the answer. However, we can’t put all of that communication burden on the individual. We need everyone to be thinking ahead, designing solutions for new work patterns and prepared to make change. I’ve heard many stories of people raising issues and being dismissed by organisations, clients or others. The risks include the psychological stresses you mention, familial stresses, and process and business breakdown. The latter two in some regards require more planning and preparation. Some can be recovered but my reference to too late was in the context of too late for prevention. I could have been clearer. Here’s a little story that might elaborate. A legal friend organised a large video meeting with clients, government agencies and others to have a hard end because the friend needed to look after their young children. At the appointed time for the end the others including her clients were keen to continue despite the prior agreement, leaving my colleague stuck and stressed. To others who didn’t have childcare obligations a little more time that became an extra hour wasn’t much while it was everything to a distressed child and stressed parent. Their client and others in the meeting were angry that the meeting wasn’t the highest priority and that it was even an issue. My friend’s communication was dismissed and their business and family relationships were in jeopardy for a lack of thoughtfulness. That thought is what I’d like to see all invest.

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