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What is 'cognitive overload' and how does it affect us at work?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Woman covering ears, irritated with noise in office, nervous breakdown at work
Minds can get pretty overwhelmed in a modern office. Image: Getty Images

Your colleagues are having a conversation around you and in the background, you can hear someone else talking loudly on the phone.

Doors slam and people scurry past into meeting rooms, disrupting your chain of thought as you try to get on with work and check your emails. Meanwhile, your phone pings with notifications from WhatsApp and Slack.

In the modern world of social media, instant messaging, emails and more, we are required to do several things at once. Our brains are busier, but despite this, we are still expected to take in, process and produce huge amounts of information – which can leave us feeling mentally strained. Dubbed ‘cognitive overload’ by researchers, it’s a growing problem that affects our work and our health.

‘Emotionally exhausted’

“Recalibrating our operating systems to keep pace with the new challenges, as well as opportunities, that come with progress, is not always a simple matter,” says Dr Ken Druck, a psychologist, author and expert on personal and professional development.

“Inundated with even greater capacity for processing and managing information, we can become mentally and emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed.”

READ MORE: How to sort out your overloaded inbox once and for all

Although technological advances in the workplace are frequently lauded, they come with downsides. “The dangers and problematic side effects, such as cognitive overload, must also be considered and addressed. Side effects such as ‘burnout’ have become an intricate part of popular culture and our language for the past 40 years,” Druck says.

“When our minds are tasked with an unrelenting stream of critical thinking, problem solving, complex interpersonal communication and strategic decision-making, our minds get tired,” he adds.

“Driven by the desire to maintain, protect or attain even higher organisational status and productivity, and keep pace with organisational goals, we push ourselves harder. Exhausted, overworked and depleted, we experience a state mental fatigue that diminishes our capacity in all of the critical functions listed above.”

Research has shown that both our health and work suffers as a result of cognitive overload. A study by the University of California, Irvine - The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress – suggested that people compensate for the constant interruptions by working faster. Although this sounds positive, it comes at a price: workers experience more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.

Work smarter, not harder

Although we might pride ourselves in being able to do several things at once, our brains aren’t actually designed to multitask. As multiple studies have shown, we actually get far more done by doing less.

And according to Stanford University researchers, people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

Multitasking has also been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and make it difficult to think clearly.

So what can you do to reduce cognitive overload at work? Although this isn’t easy - particularly if you work in an open-plan office with noise and distractions - Druck says there are a variety of effective individual, departmental, organisational and work-life balance approaches to reducing the mental strain.

READ MORE: How to be mindful at work

Firstly, it’s important to work smarter, rather than just harder. This might mean setting aside 15 minutes every few hours to check your emails, so you can concentrate on your work the rest of the time with fewer interruptions.

It might not be feasible to do the same with platforms such as Slack, as many workplaces use such apps as the main form of day-to-day communication between bosses and employees. However, setting your status to ‘away’ in order to focus on your work every so often may help.

Unfortunately, the likelihood is that we’re likely to be bombarded with even more distractions in the form of new technology and apps, so it’s a matter of setting clear boundaries when it comes to using them. Many of us find ourselves checking Facebook, Twitter or Instagram without even thinking about it, so logging out – or blocking the websites on your work computer – may make you less likely to scroll mindlessly.

Reducing extraneous noise can help too, which may mean bringing earphones or ear plugs to work so you can cut out background noise when you’re trying to concentrate.

Perhaps most importantly, take regular breaks to disconnect from work and step away from your computer and smartphone, Druck adds. “Balance your menu of daily activities with music, silence, exercise, walks in nature, lifelong learning and laughter to get your mind off of the steady stream of work problems to be solved.”