Five ways to improve cognitive function in the workplace

Advice and top tips

Five ways to improve cognitive function in the workplace

Cognitive health can be negatively affected by a number of factors, including fatigue and stress, and the effects of poor brain function can be felt in the workplace, resulting in a reduction in output, job satisfaction and overall worker health.

But making improvements to cognitive health does not have to be laborious or complex task.

By adapting to simple changes and forming healthy habits, workers can reap the psychological and physical benefits of good cognitive function, which will inevitably filter down to the business, with greater levels of efficiency and engagement.

Here, we take a look at five positive ways employers can promote better cognition and help workers lessen the chances of developing diminished cognitive ability and keep their minds sharp.

1. Taking regular breaks

Almost two thirds (64%) of non-smokers and vapers don’t take regular breaks from their work, according to the Willis Towers Watson’s Employee Health, Wellbeing and Benefits Barometer 2019 survey.

This is despite more than half (52%) believing their health and wellbeing and productivity would improve if they did take a break.

Being ‘too busy’ was the top reason given, cited by almost half of respondents who didn’t take regular breaks (48%).

Other reasons include forgetting, fear of being judged by management and colleagues and not having suitable space for breaks.

Today’s tech-centric work environment often means workers are doing more for less and are having to contend with an ‘always-on’ culture.

But opting out of breaks will only lead to brain fatigue and leave workers more susceptible to stress.

Companies can help change attitudes by regularly reminding employees of the importance of taking breaks in the day, through internal communications, encouraging management to lead by example, and creating the appropriate work environment, such as a separate, work-free quiet zone.

This will help keep it at the forefront of workers’ minds and lay to rest their worries about being judged.

2. Organisation is key

A cluttered space can equate to a cluttered mind. Not only can a messy work space prove to be an unwelcome distraction but can lead to wasted time.

Like the mind, the working environment can become overloaded by excessive mess, meaning tasks take longer and frustrations can easily grow.

Employers should encourage staff to keep a tidy work space, as this will lead to a clearer mind, boost efficiency and reduce stress.

Hot desking can also provide workers with a fresh head space that is clear from clutter.

Staff could be given lockers to store their belongings in when they leave the office.

The physical act of locking your work belongings away will reinforce the idea that they should leave their work at work.

Creating a space away from the work station can help workers recharge and take their mind off tasks, away from distractions, such as paperwork and emails.

This area can be phone-free and be stocked with books or games, which will not only allow for improved cognitive function but also offer a means of escapism, helping to lower stress levels.

3. Managing stress and anxiety

Stress can greatly influence cognitive function, leading to impaired memory and cognitive decline. Neuroscientists have discovered that high levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol damages the brain, leading to long-term changes in structure and function.

Stress is the top health-related issue for businesses today, with almost half of companies (49%) saying it is prevalent in their workplace (Willis Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitudes Survey).

The immediate impact of bouts of stress on brain function is evident, with 45% of employees saying stressful periods at work reduces the quality of their work and 40% of highly stressed workers say they are disengaged in their jobs.

In order to tackle stress, employers need to first understand the root cause of the problem.

Each workplace will have their own stressors, so it is important that employers ask what areas they can assist with and create a supportive, understanding culture.

Based on employee feedback, employers can make adjustments and implement measures to reduce stress and arm workers with coping tools.  This can vary from offering counselling services via Employee Assistance Programmes and access to meditative or relaxation apps, to workload adjustments, flexible working options and gym memberships.

4. Exercise your mind and body

Working out does not only exercise the body but also the mind.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, allowing for better oxygen distribution – and cells with more oxygen are able to defend itself from pathogens.

Regular exercise can improve brain function, better equipping workers to handle mental tasks, helping stave off brain fatigue and keeping stress levels low.

From stretching and yoga to short walks and running, workers can find an exercise that suits their preferences and situation.  Companies can look to support all of these workers by subsidising wearables and possibly incentivising activity levels.  This ensures that no-one is left out and introduces a healthy level of competition and comradery, as well as helping workers keep focused on a task that doesn’t directly relate to work.

5. Sleep well

It is a well-known fact that sleep deprivation and lack of quality sleep can have an impact on mental function.

Sleep is essential for recharging and refreshing the mind, improving memory formation and the ability to problem solve.

Often, people will reach for stimulants to replace this natural boost, including caffeine and sugary drinks and food.

But only sleep can cure the issue of sleep-induced mental fatigue.  Companies can help employees by enforcing how important sleep is, through workshops or internal communications, offering tips on how to best manage sleep.

Companies should also set clear boundaries around working patterns, to ensure their working environment doesn’t fuel the issue.  For example, management should refrain from sending working emails at unreasonable hours, as this can send a message that the work more, sleep less culture is acceptable.

Limiting the availability of and offering alternatives to sugar-laden and highly-caffeinated drink and food onsite can also help stop workers making mindless and unhealthy choices in a sleep-deprived state.