Combatting cognitive overload in the digital workplace to optimize wellbeing

There is an increasing crisis of time management in the modern workplace. Hybrid and remote work models have not only resulted in a blurred work-life balance but have produced a work environment filled with distractions as employees are constantly switching between new technologies as well.

 

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From zoom fatigue to the perpetual emails and instant messages of colleagues and managers, somewhere in the middle, employees must find the focus time needed to complete their actual day-to-day tasks too. The usual cognitive load of work is morphing into an epidemic of cognitive overload. Such overload which can cause employees to become overwhelmed and resentful of stressful long-term demands can hurt wellbeing, lead to burnout, and ultimately, employee resignation. While organizations looking to tackle wellbeing may be introducing new benefits, providing more time off, and creating employee assistance programs,  they should also be focusing on the relatively unknown killer of wellbeing – cognitive overload.

The rise of cognitive overload

Office-based work requires the utilization of various mental processes, such as attention, working memory, decision-making, and learning. As studies have demonstrated, the brain has a fixed amount of mental energy for such cognitive tasks. Mental energy reserves can quickly become depleted requiring periods of low cognitive load to recover effectively. When employees are constantly expected to perform mentally challenging activities, the ability for mental restoration is severely diminished, and they will inevitably begin to feel increasingly stressed and burned out. Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that this is becoming more and more common. According to research, 61% of managers agreed with the statement that there is “not enough time to get your job done”. Similarly, surveys indicate that almost half of all employees are at least somewhat burned out. In fact, the authors believe this is actually likely to be an underestimate because the most burned-out employees are less likely to respond to surveys.

The growing prevalence of burnout should be a major concern for employers. Psychologists have demonstrated that workers who experience burnout are less motivated, less capable of high performance, and more likely to want to leave the company. They are also at higher risk of physical and psychological health issues and may therefore need to take time away from work while they recuperate. Empowering employees to avoid burnout is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense.

So, how can you help employees combat cognitive overload? Here are five key recommendations to help avoid the strain of cognitive overload when working from home:

1. Promote finding quiet time during the day.

Many home-workers have experienced a massively increasing number of meetings they’re expected to attend, for various reasons. Instead of quick desk-side discussions, they now have neat half-hour meetings that all parties feel compelled to fill. Physical meeting rooms limit the number of people involved in any discussion, but with no such limits in the virtual world meeting organizers increasingly extend invites to anybody who might be somewhat relevant to the conversation. The result is a working life in which employees constantly jump from one meeting to the next, with no time for recuperation, reflection, or creative thinking. Paradoxically, quiet home offices have become more hectic than a physical company office. For this reason, it is critical that employees are empowered to block out time in their calendars for quiet time. There is a clear neurological justification for this – our brains naturally work in bursts of high activity lasting for about an hour, but then need to switch to low activity for about 15 minutes to allow mental reserves to replenish. Taking frequent breaks throughout the day is therefore vital for maintaining the balance between focused work and recovery, increasing productivity while limiting stress. Indeed, research shows that workers who take frequent “microbreaks” actually concentrate much better than those who don’t.

2. Learn to set boundaries

Hybrid working technology has transformed ordinary working lives. Now that the requirement to be on-site each and every day has been lifted, employees have more time for personal obligations and commitments alongside their work. On the other hand, the place previously reserved for rest and leisure is now a place of mental exertion. Laptops and smartphones keep us plugged into the world of work at all times, and many feel the (real or perceived) pressure to continue checking emails on evenings and weekends. The boundaries between work and home have been completely blurred, substantially increasing the risk of burnout. For this reason, it is more important than ever for employees to take responsibility for demarcating work from home (and for employers to encourage them to do so). This can be achieved through “boundary-crossing routines” which mark the transition between work and non-work. In particular, behavioral scientists have highlighted the importance of creating physical and temporal boundaries (e.g., having a set space within the home for work, and sticking to a schedule that clearly delineates work time from leisure time) and adopting behavioral boundary-crossing routines (e.g., changing in and out of work clothes and/or going on a “faux commute” at the start and end of each working day). By setting clear boundaries between work and home, employees will approach each new working day more motivated and productive.  

3. Define solid principles for what tasks employees take on, and when.

The switch to remote work has also made employees increasingly lose their autonomy over how they approach their work. Primarily, collaborating in hybrid environments makes it difficult for employees to coordinate schedules and quickly interact with one another, and so they tend to fall back on lengthier pre-scheduled meetings instead. The abundance of meetings means that there is increasingly limited ‘free’ time to complete any other work. If employees don’t happen to be at peak productivity during those brief moments? They must carry on working in their leisure time to finish off the work, increasing their stress levels and giving them less time to recover properly at the end of the workday. Organizations can help here by putting in place clear guidelines which define the times that employees should be contacted and expectations regarding response times, saving them from having to struggle with making decisions themselves. For example, experts recommend setting aside one day per week when employees should have no meetings at all so that they can be freed up for other tasks. Managers could also consider implementing guidelines regarding e-mails on the evenings and weekends, as the French have trailed through their ‘right to disconnect’ legislation. What works best will vary from organization to organization – what’s important is giving employees control over how and when they should approach their work.  

4. Encourage team members to hide self-view in virtual meetings.

By default, video conferencing platforms show attendees the video from their own camera, as well as the videos of others in the meeting. This is highly unnatural – a product of the new digital world which is completely dissimilar to how we converse face to face. There is increasing evidence to show that constantly seeing our own reflection can make us feel increasingly self-conscious and anxious, and may therefore be a major challenge for employees in hybrid working environments. According to Professor Jeremy Bailenson, an expert from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, this is one of the main contributors to “Zoom fatigue” (the term he coined to describe the feeling of exhaustion that often follows periods of videoconferencing). By seeing ourselves all the time, we inevitably become more worried about and critical of our own appearance, a phenomenon that has previously been referred to as “mirror anxiety”. Multiple studies show that this is particularly the case for women and for those high in public self-consciousness. To reduce the risk of this anxiety, and to foster more natural conversations, employees should therefore be encouraged to make use of the “hide self-view” function as the default option during video calls.   

5. Watch out for technology overload.

Technology offers significant productivity benefits and plays a crucial role in the success of hybrid work, but it is not without its perils too. Employees now have to use more apps than ever before to complete their work, bombarded with new information and alerts throughout the working day – they’ve escaped the distractions of the open-plan office only to see them replaced with constant interruptions on their computer screen. Learning how to understand and use these multiple systems is another challenge, adding complexity to the workday. When implemented poorly, the digital systems designed to make work easier can actually increase the risk of overload. Part of the solution here is to encourage employees to use functions within the apps to hide alerts during periods of focused activity so that their work isn’t disrupted. Beyond that, however, companies should implement a smoother working experience, by reviewing and minimizing the systems required to get the job done. Indeed, research shows that optimizing the digital workplace experience is a crucial strategy for boosting employee productivity and engagement.  

While remote and hybrid working can offer numerous benefits for employees, they now face new challenges of longer working hours, unpredictable schedules, and a blurring of the boundaries between work and home. If no action is taken, this can and will lead to poorer work quality, disengagement, and burnout. As such, it is crucial to conduct comprehensive assessments of employees’ working needs and challenges from afar in order to develop and implement a more supportive digital workplace strategy. Aligned with this new approach to work should be a refreshed understanding of productivity, fit for the modern world. Employers should recognize that productivity is not simply a matter of work output, but also reflects their employees’ well-being and opportunities for social connection, collaboration with colleagues, and innovation. By designing a digital workplace experience to match employee expectations, organizations can fully realize the benefits of hybrid working, motivating their people to lead healthier and more balanced working lives.



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