When does tiredness become chronic fatigue?

As a frequent traveller, tiredness and fatigue are the norm but how do you recognise the symptoms of day to day acute fatigue becoming the kind of chronic fatigue you need to take notice of and address?

Firstly, we need to understand what chronic fatigue is to how to avoid it.

Chronic fatigue is when acute fatigue (that is missing one night’s sleep and feeling dreadful, the kind of hangover feeling you annoyingly get despite not consuming alcohol), is never corrected properly. If you normally sleep for 7-8 hours, that is how much sleep you need to catch up on for one missed night’s sleep. Like time zone changes, it takes a day to recover for each hour of time change. If you miss a normal night’s sleep, it takes a one full night to recover. If you miss a number of full night’s quality sleep, sleep deprivation begins to stack up and you start to develop chronic fatigue with all its associated problems.

If you do not pay attention to your sleep cycle, this sleep deprivation can develop into chronic fatigue and can creep up on you without you noticing.

There are groups of people who are most susceptible to chronic fatigue who struggle to keep their sleep cycles in balance. Those most at risk are new parents, shift workers (especially those who mix a schedule of working nights with days and switch from one week to the next) and frequent travellers who cross time zones.


Chronic fatigue can also occur in long haul airline pilots and cabin staff. Some are so badly affected they never get their normal sleep cycle re-established and end up permanently grounded. There’s one particular case of a round the world flight attendant, who for 30 years never stayed in the same place for longer than a week. When retirement came, living at home was impossible and after a few weeks, they had to stay in a different location for a week. I call this case the “Butterfly Syndrome” as butterflies flit about. Interestingly, the flight attendant sued the airline for an illness caused by employment and won.

In the case of the permanently grounded pilots, the present-day insurers have no cover for such events, yet in the case of frequent flyers who become fatigued, this is work-induced so they should be covered.

What are the early signs and symptoms of chronic fatigue?

Having recently spent 3 months in hospital without one night’s resemblance of a normal sleep pattern, I developed chronic fatigue. Whilst I’m in a recovery phase now, it will take a few months to get back to normal. From my personal experience, here are the early signs to look out for;

Firstly, the normal order of daily life and thinking starts to become out of order. Subjects and thoughts at the back of your mind come to the front and often not of the same magnitude.

Secondly, noise can always be annoying and irritating but when you have chronic fatigue it can become all-consuming to the point when you complain to those who think you are not well or worse, mad.

Thirdly, temper can easily come to the fore in an otherwise temperate person. Things can be said that would normally have not been mentioned or are turned the wrong way, with the end result potentially even turning into violence.

Some people know this as “burn out”, others say it’s a result of “stress”. Neither of these terms are a medical condition or a diagnosis, they are just factors contributing to chronic fatigue. Anxiety, depression and irritability can all arise from poor sleep leading to the often-misplaced term “a nervous breakdown”. Many frequent flyers say a side effect of returning from a business trip is to be unforgiving to their family when they arrive home, which causes guilt.

All these terms relate to the same condition, that of chronic fatigue. People can react in different ways to the same condition which is why it’s frequently misdiagnosed by doctors, managers and others in authority. Some don’t recognise the condition at all, and in their ignorance say it’s a way of avoiding work. Some companies even have hearings against individuals genuinely complaining of and suffering from chronic fatigue.

However, more enlightened corporates have implemented practices and procedures to identify symptoms early. HR departments are now focusing heavily on the wellness of their staff and have put corrective measures in place to prevent chronic fatigue developing. The corporate’s viewpoint on employee wellness is advancing daily. It has to, because if an accident or serious incident occurs involving injury or loss of life due to chronic fatigue, they ultimately have a duty of care to look after their employees.

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