Cut your SPAD risk from home

A study of 250 SPAD reports in 2016/17 revealed that fatigue, health and wellbeing were a problem in 25% of these incidents. Managing fatigue, health and wellbeing is a joint responsibility: you and your employer both play a part. Your employer has a responsibility to promote a ‘fair’ culture where you feel open to discuss and report concerns without fear. You might choose to make simple lifestyle changes to help manage your own personal fatigue, health and wellbeing – as these can be effective in reducing the likelihood of SPADs.

Nobody likes being told how to live their lives: when to sleep, what to eat, what to avoid doing on rest days. But there is no getting away from the fact that poor aspects of your lifestyle outside of work can impact your driving, which could lead to SPADs. We are much more likely to alter our lifestyle if we better understand the issues and the benefits such changes can have on our performance and wellbeing. This article provides practical advice on lifestyle changes you could make to help reduce your chances of being involved in a SPAD, and points you to useful RSSB resources on managing fatigue, health and wellbeing. 


It was identified that the driver had not been effectively managing their period of rest between shifts, resulting in fatigue. When working night shifts the driver had begun to fit their sleep around their domestic responsibilities of taking their child to and from school.’ – SPAD investigation report.

‘Fatigue’ is a word that we use to describe feeling tired and worn out. It includes sleepiness, but it also includes other kinds of mental and physical tiredness. To do your job safely and efficiently, you need to be awake and alert. The effects of fatigue are comparable to being over the drink driving limit for alcohol: poor judgements, slow reactions, poor memory, impaired vision. Fatigue causes accidents, including SPADs.

Fatigue can be caused by a range of factors including prolonged working, insufficient rest, heavy workload or inadequate sleep. It can develop quickly after a burst of energy (for example if you have been for a run); but it can also develop slowly over a longer period of time (losing an hour of sleep each night for a week). 

Before starting a shift, ask yourself if you are suffering from fatigue, or if it might affect you later in your shift. Use our guide to help. If you are suffering, then you should report it. Raise issues with your line manager, trade unions or via CIRAS, the confidential incident reporting and analysis service. Ask yourself: would you prefer to report fatigue, or to ignore it and have an incident?

You can learn more about fatigue and the effects it might have on task performance by exploring the information on RSSB’s Fatigue and Alertness webpages, where you will find our 'What is fatigue?' video below. Use the fatigue self-check to help you think about how you might manage your own fatigue. 

Health and wellbeing

The driver had many personal and financial issues at the time of the SPAD that were causing them stress and may have been playing on their mind. They did not come forward with these issues and ask for time off or additional support” – SPAD investigation report.

‘Health and wellbeing’ is a broad topic that includes areas such as physical health, mental health and employee wellbeing. Employee wellbeing is a concept applying to several areas including physical, psychological and social wellbeing. You can learn more about health and wellbeing by exploring RSSB’s Health and Wellbeing webpages

We all face difficulties at some point in our lives, such as bereavements, relationship problems, sickness, or financial pressures. It can be tempting to ignore the effects that these may have: you might think that you’re not affected, so your ability to drive isn’t compromised. But we are all human, and these things do affect us. The area of mental health and its effect on driving performance is still not fully understood, but it is known that stress, anxiety and depression do make driving more difficult as they can impact on our cognitive functioning. 

We should all be aware of common mental health issues, and consider how they may contribute to a SPAD. Three common mental health issues are:

  • Stress: the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and feeling unable to cope. Stress affects our cognitive abilities, so we find it difficult to concentrate and find it’s harder to make decisions. This is problematic when approaching a red aspect. Read more about stress here
  • Anxiety: the feelings of worry, unease and fear. The effects of anxiety can be distracting when driving a train. Read more about anxiety here
  • Depression: causes a state of low mood. The effects of depression include difficulty concentrating, finding it hard to function at work, tiredness and loss of energy. Read more about depression here.  

Mental health problems can leave us feeling trapped and helpless. They make us less likely to notice there is a problem, they make us less confident, less likely to speak up and more likely to withdraw and not saying anything to managers and colleagues. 

The norm on the railway used to be to just grin and bear it, but these times have passed. As a driver, you have a duty to report anything that may affect your driving performance; and your company has a legal and moral duty to help you. If you are struggling, do raise with your company and say that something is bothering you – it might feel awkward or difficult, but it’s much better than waiting for an incident before telling someone.  Sharing issues can be a weight off your shoulders, it also underlines that you care about doing your job in a professional manner. 

As a rule of thumb, if you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, then the best thing to do is talk to someone. This could be your line manager, or an organisation such as Mind or Samaritans. Read more about reporting mental health concerns here. 

Five practical lifestyle changes

Health, wellbeing and fatigue are closely linked. Your overall physical and mental health and wellbeing can affect your levels of fatigue. Likewise, long term exposure to fatigue can lead to health and wellbeing problems. Therefore, making effective lifestyle changes is likely to have a positive influence in both areas.

According to recent research into SPADs, driver’s lives outside of work was the main cause of excess fatigue (Analysis of SPAD incidents in 2016/17). It’s important to have a fulfilling life outside of work, but if the demands of that part of our lives becomes too much then this can impact on our performance at work. This is explained in the 'Fatigue causes' video below. There are practical lifestyle changes that you can adopt to help you perform at your best, and ultimately reduce the likelihood of experiencing a SPAD. 

  1. Sleep – get enough, good quality sleep. Most people need about 8 hours sleep in every 24 hours. If you get less than 6 hours uninterrupted sleep in every 24 hours, you begin to run out of sleep in your 'tank' quickly, which can lead to you dozing off. Lack of sleep and disrupted sleep (regular waking, dozing etc.) can also lead to anxiety and worsen the symptoms of depression. If you are not getting enough good quality sleep, then there is plenty that you can do to address it. For more information on sleep, watch the 'Sleep & body clock' video below.

  2. Nutrition – it's not a complicated theory: eat rubbish, feel rubbish. Eating well helps keep you healthy, improves your alertness and means you don’t feel the effects of fatigue as quickly. Studies have shown that some foods can help brain chemistry, and other foods can hinder it. Foods that can have a negative effect on your brain include trans-fats found in processed foods, excess saturated fats, fried foods or excess sugars. Foods that help to nourish your brain include fish, eggs, fruit and veg, seeds, nuts and chicken. You can find out more on nutrition here.  
  3. Physical activity – regular exercise is likely to improve your overall levels of fitness and improve your alertness at work. Physical activity is essential for your health in general, but it has also been shown to have a significant impact on your mental wellbeing. If you are not currently exercising, then try a variety of activities to see what you enjoy. The recommended amount is 30 minutes at least 5 times a week. If that feels like too much, it’s important to remember that even small amounts of exercise will help.  It’s also something you can build up to over time – an extra length when swimming or, taking a minute less on a familiar walk / jog.
  4. Hydration – staying hydrated is as important as eating well for warding off the effects of fatigue and for keeping alert. Drink lots of water, and consider investing in a water bottle to make it easier to monitor how much you’re drinking. Try to avoid alcohol and caffeine after a shift and before you go to bed – it might help you relax when you get home, but it disrupts the quality of sleep you get. 
  5. Napping – taking a nap can increase your alertness, improve your mood and reduce sleepiness. It can improve your performance and safety. Even short naps of 20 minutes are effective. If you find it difficult to nap, try napping in the early afternoon, during the ‘post-lunch dip’. When at work, use your physical need breaks to rest and if possible, try and nap 

For more small lifestyle changes, our article on 'Feeling tired?', provides an excellent overview of the steps you should take to ensure that you are well rested, and fit for duty. You should also take proactive steps to keep your brain healthy, ensuring you can process information and perform tasks. Read more about looking after the brain here.


Anxiety poster
Depression poster
Stress poster
Right Track - issue 25

RAIB Reports - Fatigue

Fatigue and You

Off the Rails

Are you suffering from fatigue today?
How well are you managing your own fatigue?
Haven’t found what you’re looking for?
Get in touch with our Principal Human Factors Specialist for further information.
Philippa Murphy
Tel: 020 3142 5641
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