Tiredness & Fatigue

  • Tiredness and fatigue is reoccurring exhaustion that can feel similar to having the flu and missing a lot of sleep.
  • Everyone has the occasional bad night sleep, though when it becomes the norm, it can affect you both mentally and physically.
  • There are numerous factors that can lead to fatigue, including lifestyle related causes, sleep disturbance or an underlying health issue, such as iron deficiency, depression or obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Studies show that sleep disorders and sleep problems affect approximately 40% of Australian adults at any one time.

What is Tiredness & Fatigue?

Fatigue is lingering tiredness or exhaustion that is persistent and limiting. With fatigue, you experience unexplained, persistent, and reoccurring exhaustion that can feel similar to having the flu and missing a lot of sleep. Fatigue can interfere with your ability to concentrate and be productive at work or to function at home. You may be too exhausted even to manage your daily affairs.

Fatigue is a symptom – something you can feel and describe – not a condition or a disease. In most cases, there is a reason for fatigue, and it is important to find the underlying cause to manage the fatigue and improve wellbeing. There are numerous factors that can lead to fatigue, including lifestyle related causes, such as sleep disturbance or an underlying health issue, such as iron deficiency or depression. If you feel you have signs of fatigue, it is important to consult your doctor for treatment.


Fatigue can be defined as a feeling of constant tiredness, exhaustion or a complete lack of energy and motivation. It can be physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion or a combination of both, and it can affect anyone. Most adults will experience fatigue at some point in their life.

As many as 1.5 million Australians see a doctor about fatigue each year. Fatigue is a common symptom, not a condition, and it can be caused by a combination of lifestyle, psychological, life events and general wellbeing issues rather than an underlying health issue

Although fatigue is sometimes described as tiredness, it is different to simply feeling tired, drowsy or sleepy. While everyone feels tired at some point, fatigue can’t be resolved with a good sleep or even a few nights of good sleep. Someone who is just sleepy can feel temporarily rejuvenated after exercising, while someone with fatigue suffers from a constant lack of energy and inability to function normally

If you are getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly but are finding it difficult to perform everyday activities, concentrate or be motivated at your normal levels, you may be experiencing fatigue that needs further investigation.

Symptoms of tiredness & fatigue

Fatigue can result in a range of other physical, mental and emotional symptoms, including:

  • chronic tiredness or exhaustion
  • poor concentration
  • headache
  • blurry vision
  • dizziness
  • sore or aching muscles
  • muscle weakness
  • slowed reflexes and responses
  • impaired decision-making and judgement
  • impaired hand-to-eye coordination
  • moodiness and irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • short-term memory problems
  • hallucinations
  • reduced driving skills
  • low motivation

Causes of tiredness & fatigue

Tiredness & fatigue can also be caused by a number of factors working in combination.

Medical causes of tiredness & fatigue

Fatigue may be a sign of an underlying health issue, such as a thyroid disorder, heart disease or diabetes

There are a number of medical issues and disorders which can trigger fatigue. If you experience ongoing signs of fatigue, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Lifestyle-related causes of tiredness & fatigue

Poor diet, alcohol, drugs or idleness can contribute to feelings of fatigue. Common lifestyle factors that can cause fatigue include:

  • Lack of sleep – adults need roughly 8 hours of sleep each night, but many people don’t manage to get enough sleep. This could be due to disturbed sleep, such as young children who wake in the night, a snoring partner or a noisy neighbourhood.
  • Too much sleep – sleeping more than 11 hours per night can actually increase sleepiness and affect daily functioning.
  • Alcohol and drugs – alcohol is a depressant that slows the nervous system and disrupts normal sleep patterns. Other drugs, such as cigarettes and caffeine, stimulate the nervous system and can cause insomnia.
  • Lack of regular exercise and sedentary behaviour – physical activity is known to improve fitness, health and wellbeing and reduce stress. It also helps you sleep.
  • Poor diet –a nutritionally poor diet doesn’t provide the body with enough fuel or nutrients to function at its best. Fast foods or sugar rich treats, such as chocolates or soft drinks only offer a temporary energy boost that quickly wears off and worsens fatigue.
  • Individual factors – personal illness or injury, family problems, financial difficulty or too many commitments can be exhausting over long periods and cause fatigue.

Workplace-related causes of tiredness & fatigue

Feeling overwhelmed with stress and anxiety at work can lead to fatigue. Common workplace issues that can cause fatigue include:

  • Shift work – our natural body clock is set for us to sleep during the night and be alert during the day. This pattern is set by a small part of the brain known as the circadian rhythm. Shift work disrupts our natural circadian rhythm, needing us to be alert when our body is naturally programmed to be asleep. Some people are unable to adjust to shift work and after time, this can lead to fatigue.
  • Poor workplace practices – demands at work can increase the level of fatigue. These may include long work hours, hard physical labour, irregular working hours (such as rotating shifts), a stressful work environment, working alone and feeling isolated or continually focusing on a repetitive task.
  • Workplace stress – can be caused by a number of factors including conflicts with bosses or colleagues, bullying, job dissatisfaction, a heavy workload, constant change, or threats to job security.
  • Burnout – usually occurs when someone pours all their energy into one area of their life and the effort is overwhelming. ‘Workaholics’, for example, focus all their attention and energy on their career, neglecting their family life, social life and personal interests to the point where life is out of balance and in time, they can feel burnt out.
  • Unemployment– often leads to financial pressure and can induce feelings of failure or guilt. The emotional exhaustion of prolonged job hunting can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue.

Emotional & Psychological causes of tiredness & fatigue

Fatigue is a common symptom of grief and mental health problems, such as depression. It may be accompanied by other symptoms, including lethargy, lack of motivation and irritability.

Studies reveal that psychological factors are present in at least half of all fatigue cases. These may include:

  • Depression– this illness is characterised by severe and prolonged feelings of hopelessness, sadness and emptiness. People who are depressed commonly experience chronic fatigue.
  • Anxiety and stress – chronic anxiety or stress keeps the body in overdrive. The constant, heightened state of adrenaline exhausts the body and fatigue sets in.
  • Grief – can come from a number of life events, such as divorce or the death of a loved one. Grief causes a wide range of emotions including shock, guilt, depression, despair and loneliness. These overwhelming emotions can affect sleep and daily functioning, leading to fatigue.

Diagnosing tiredness & fatigue

Fatigue can be caused by a combination of many different factors and diagnosis can be difficult. Your doctor may diagnose fatigue using a number of tests including:

  • Medical history – life events such as childbirth, medication, surgery or bereavement may contribute to fatigue. Anxiety or depression may also be an underlying cause of fatigue.
  • Physical examination – to check for signs of illness or disease. Your doctor may also ask detailed questions about diet, lifestyle and any recent travels or life events.
  • Tests – such as blood tests, urine tests, x-rays and other investigations may be undertaken to rule out any physical causes, for example, anaemia, infection or hormonal problems.

Treating tiredness & fatigue

Fatigue is a symptom – something you can feel and describe – not a condition or disease. To reduce your fatigue, you first need to establish what the underlying reasons for your fatigue are.

If you are experiencing signs of fatigue and having difficulty with daily functioning or tiredness is having a negative effect on your quality of life, consult your doctor. A health professional will help you discover why you are experiencing fatigue and, once the cause has been diagnosed, your doctor can treat the problem and relieve the fatigue.

Fortunately, most people with fatigue will improve with diagnosis and treatment or appropriate lifestyle changes.

What to do next…

Speak to your family doctor (GP) and arrange a referral for a sleep assessment, to help determine the best course of therapy.