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Think back to your school days, especially postsecondary school, and how your brain felt after cramming all night for a tough exam. Remember that? When you felt like your brain had been pushed to the limit and was no longer functioning properly? That is called cognitive fatigue.

Cognitive fatigue can be defined as a decrease is one’s cognitive abilities due to prolonged mental demands, brought on by excessive wear and tear on the brain. It’s not simply being sleep-deprived, although sleep is important and necessary for healthy brain functioning.

Sometimes the challenges we take on, such as work-related commitments and education goals, can be stressful, challenging and require a high level of cognitive demand over an extended period of time.

Daniel Goleman reports that cognitive exhaustion can occur due to extended periods of focus, and the brain, like any muscle, can be pushed to the point of exhaustion. When this happens, the brain’s capacity to perform to its full potential can be dramatically decreased.

Understanding cognitive fatigue can help us know the actions we can take to reduce the risk and increase our capacity to manage high-demand mental task when necessary. When we’re not aware that cognitive fatigue is happening, we can be at increased risk for being distracted, anxious and irritable.

This micro skill provides some ideas to mitigate risk for cognitive fatigue. The focus is on people who engage in some form of activity (such as work or school) that requires a high level of concentration over an extended period.

Awareness

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People who have suffered a head injury or some form of mental illness can be at increased risk for experiencing cognitive fatigue. Research shows that cognitive fatigue can significantly impair physical performance that could put a person at increased risk for making mistakes.

Common signs of cognitive fatigue include a decrease in motivation, creativity and ability to analyze and think clearly. Someone who’s experiencing any of these symptoms may not be able to process what’s happening, so they need to learn the concept of cognitive fatigue and what actions to take if they've reached that point.

Accountability

Sometimes we may order more food at a restaurant than we can eat. The same can happen when we want to achieve something. We focus on the end goal and may not consider the ongoing effort or commitment we’ve made to achieve it.

To reduce the risk for cognitive fatigue, you need to not only be aware of your capacity and the potential for cognitive fatigue, you need to set realistic expectations. For example, you wouldn’t commit to running a marathon unless you trained and worked up to it. The mind needs the same consideration. If you want to do something in your career or education that will be a challenge, it’s helpful to make a commitment to train your brain and rest it like any other muscle. You want to develop it to be as strong as possible.

Action

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Here are some actions you can take to reduce your risk for cognitive fatigue.

Prepare for challenges – Accept that for your brain to work to its full potential it needs to be trained and prepared. If you’re taking a course that requires lots of studying over a period of a year or two, develop a capacity-building plan that may involve increasing your daily reading or taking a study strategy program to maximize your study habits.

Create a schedule and stick to it – Schedule periods in your day when you’ll focus, and rest periods above and beyond getting your required sleep. The purpose is to provide times in your day when your mind can rest and enjoy other activities.

Develop a daily resiliency plan – Too much caffeine or alcohol can hurt your brain's ability to perform while exercise and strong coping skills – the strategies that enable us to solve problems under stress – can help your brain stay strong when its being stressed. A resiliency plan is a minimum commitment to provide the mind and body the most opportunity to have the energy it needs to push through daily challenges as well as to reduce risk for cognitive fatigue. A daily plan may include:

  • Getting seven to nine hours’ sleep
  • Drinking no more than two cups of coffee – and no other sources of caffeine 
  • Taking a 10-minute break every 90 minutes 
  • Eating three healthy meals, with healthy snacks between them
  • Exercising 30 minutes each day
  • Drinking at least 2.5 litres of water
  • Meditating for 15 minutes first thing in the morning to kick off the day 
  • Journaling at the end of the day to process the day’s challenges and acknowledge things to be grateful for
  • Spending a minimum of 30 minutes with your partner to catch up on life 

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find all the stories in this series at tgam.ca/workplaceaward