What Remote Working Does To The Brain
Dr. Sina Habibi, Co-founder & CEO Cognetivity Neurosciences.
Working life during the pandemic looks very different than expected. For many of us, the comradery of the office has been replaced with emails and endless video calls. Some people feel liberated by the break from awkward small talk. Others mourn the loss of interactions with colleagues outside of the digital realm.
It’s probably too soon to tell how drastically the switch to remote working has impacted our brains. But there are clues that the lockdown has dented some workers’ abilities to learn, concentrate and spark ideas. If remote working is here to stay — the Institute of Directors survey suggests 74% of businesses plan on maintaining the increase — bosses need to find new ways to engage their employees and protect their cognitive performance.
Your Brain On Isolation
There’s no denying that some remote workers feel lonely. Research from Total Jobs found 46% of U.K. workers experienced loneliness while working from home.
Loneliness isn’t just an unpleasant feeling. Studies have shown that loneliness and isolation can have a detrimental effect on cognitive health. Older people who feel lonely perform worse on tests of thinking abilities compared to people with a rich social network. Isolated adults also show more rapid decline in brain performance in follow-up tests several years later.
Staying in touch with messages and video calls can help stave off loneliness, but it’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Too much video conferencing can also have unintended consequences.
If you’ve noticed you feel even more exhausted after a day of video meetings than when you were working eight hours in an office, you’re not alone. The emerging phenomenon is known as “Zoom fatigue.” Research from Microsoft found that back-to-back video meetings decrease people’s ability to focus and engage.
That could be because the human brain responds to video calls in a different way to a real-life conversation. Humans take notice of non-verbal cues, such as eye contact and body language. These features are lost in a video call, but the brain continues to search for them. The mental exhaustion that results is even worse during digital chats with multiple people. Your brain’s central vision is challenged by having to decode the intentions of multiple colleagues simultaneously.
Stress And Cognition
There’s also a misconception that remote working is more easygoing than heading to the office. The pandemic has blurred the boundaries between work and home, leaving it impossible for some people to fully switch off. Some have joked that they’re not “working from home,” they’re “living at work.” In 2017, a United Nations report found that 41% of remote workers said they had high stress levels compared to 25% of employees who went to the office every day.
Studies show people who are stressed are more preoccupied and take longer to perform their daily tasks than their more relaxed peers. Long term, stress can lead to accelerated cognitive decline. There’s also a vicious cycle effect. Stress can lead to poor lifestyle choices, like neglecting exercise, drinking too much alcohol or skimping on sleep, which all negatively affect cognitive performance.
It makes sense for companies to keep an eye on their workers’ stress levels in order to offer support and help manage workloads. But it can be hard to spot problems without regular one-to-ones.
Creativity And Cognition
It’s also tricky to be creative if you’re stressed. Companies are built on good ideas, but some people have felt stifled during the pandemic.
Our brains rely on stimulation to produce killer concepts. We usually get our inspiration from sights, sounds and new experiences. These may be lacking in the remote workplace.
Employees who make time for new activities could protect their cognitive health. According to Age UK, activities that challenge us in new ways might be the most effective way to maintain or improve our thinking. Encouraging workers to try something new, like learning a language or taking up photography, could pay dividends in boardroom-worthy ideas.
Boost Employee Brain Health
When most people think about cognitive health, their mind jumps to dementia and older age. But we shouldn’t wait until later life to worry about brain performance. In fact, it’s worth considering cognitive health as a vital component of a modern employee wellbeing program. It could be more relevant than ever in a post-Covid workplace.
Preventing burnout is important as we know stress and fatigue negatively impact cognitive health. Bosses could encourage workers to take regular breaks — and make the most of their annual leave. You may think long hours mean increased output, but it could actually mean lower levels of productivity. Some studies suggest the human brain can only concentrate for an hour and a half before a 15-minute break is needed.
What workers do during their breaks can also benefit their cognitive health. Research shows physical activity can help workers focus on tricky tasks when they return to their desks. Meditation is another good option — apps such as Headspace and Calm make mindfulness more accessible. People who meditate seem to be better at concentrating than those who don’t.
Cognitive health is not a one-size-fits-all thing though. Some people’s concentration and memory will be more affected by diet, alcohol intake, sleep and stress than others. Empowering workers to tune in to the lifestyle factors that help them stay alert and refreshed might help them make choices that improve their quality of life inside and outside the workplace. Smartphone tools that enable workers to track cognitive health over time could help people see the link between their lifestyle and their brain health and spot potential problems early.
Reminding remote workers that there’s a lot they can do to maintain and improve cognitive sharpness might be a great way of boosting employee engagement and productivity in the “new normal.”
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