Dr. Talia Varley holds a Master of Public Health from Harvard University and MD from McMaster University. She is the physician lead for Advisory Services at Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.
As doctors and business advisers, we are seeing more academic and real-life evidence that office models – whether remote, hybrid or in-person – correlate with employees’ cognitive health, a key component of overall brain health that describes the ability to clearly think, learn, problem-solve and remember. All are essential components of performing everyday workplace activities.
Although hybrid, remote and ‘telecommuting’ work arrangements have been studied for decades, the widespread acceptance and implementation of remote work since the beginning of the pandemic has turbocharged research in this area and added to our knowledge base.
Today, there is a growing body of research that, when stitched together, is cause for concern. For companies that want to maintain strong hybrid and remote work options, these studies raise issues that should be addressed to help maintain team engagement and employees’ cognitive health.
Prior to the pandemic, researchers concluded that the loneliness and isolation that can accompany remote work can have a detrimental effect on cognitive health in the long-term. In 2020, a Microsoft study found that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration. Specifically, brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork – which can both lead to cognitive decline – were significantly higher when collaborating remotely rather than in person.
Additionally, fully remote and hybrid work have shown association with increased likelihood of symptoms for anxiety and depression compared to in-person work. And the video calls, text messages, social media and other communication tools that should logically alleviate loneliness and enhance collaboration can actually cause exhaustion and stress, which have been associated with reduced creativity and depression. Depression can further change our ability to think, and impair attention, memory, information processing and decision-making skills.
There’s more. Last year, Dutch researchers found a statistically significant decrease in cognitive performance when a chess player competes online versus offline, face-to-face. A Memorial University study, based on a preliminary review of data, revealed individuals experienced a meaningful memory deficit and recalled fewer instructional details when receiving information provided through a telehealth system compared to the same information provided in person.
Meanwhile, McKinsey & Co. released a 25,000-person survey last summer that revealed fully remote and hybrid workers suffered considerably more physical and mental health issues, which can impact cognitive health.
While certain recent research paints hybrid and remote work more positively, citing benefits such as better life balance and improved well-being, the overall data that I see still slants negative for cognitive health as a whole.
This is all happening at a time when deeper cognitive skills and more innovation, creativity and problem-solving are expected to play a proportionately larger role in performing white-collar jobs. In my role advising Canadian corporations, I hear C-suite concerns around the potential impact of remote work on employee anxiety, isolation, burnout and – in tandem – cognitive health.
These concerns are not misplaced: We know cognitive engagement is often enhanced in in-person environments that host teams on-site, but still offer places for individual work and uninterrupted thinking.
So how can companies support their remote workers and maintain cognitive health for remote and hybrid workers? It starts with the basics: regular breaks, physical activity and positive stimulating ‘mind games’ such as hobbies and crosswords. It also includes healthier and more active lifestyle decisions, strong social connections and better sleep habits. Moving is critical to maintaining cognitive health.
Research from Harvard University shows that moderate walking of just 20–30 minutes a day can slow cognitive decline, boost memory and thinking, and is even associated with reduced risk of depression and anxiety. It is imperative that companies pro-actively offer mental and physical health care supports that lead to better cognitive health, are tailored to remote and hybrid settings and ensure employees know these services are available.
In addition, support can include a temporary or gradual return to the workplace, where employees can both see and feel benefits such as greater purpose and more opportunity to experience cognitive ‘wins’ (for example, creative in-person working sessions, productivity increases and enhanced mood linked to better performance).
It is important to note that some cognitive health gains are also likely to evolve over time as workers adapt to new models. The chess study mentioned earlier noted that the cognitive performance gap of remote versus in-person players decreased over time, suggesting that some adaptation to a newly remote work setting is likely.
All that said, it’s important to recognize a few key realities. One, not all employees’ cognitive health and related skillsets will be affected to the same degree by remote or hybrid work. Two, in-person work also comes with its own stresses and anxieties. And three, just showing up at the office may not lead to cognitive benefits. The act of going into the office is not of singular paramount importance – it’s the social interactions and workplace connections available there.
Finally, there remain many good reasons to offer remote work to employees. For the right roles and the right people, remote and hybrid work provides the flexibility that many employees require while maintaining their productivity.
It will take time for research to more conclusively determine if remote and hybrid work does affect the cognitive health of employees long-term, and, if so, how and how much. But based on what we have learned, it makes sense for progressive companies to take actions today that assume cognitive health impacts are likely.