An understanding of the concept of ‘mental workload’ can help employers reduce the risk of underperformance and poor mental wellbeing. Andrew Mawson discusses what employers can learn from research into how the brain manages its resources to conduct tasks, and the factors that affect its performance.
Covid-19 triggered an acceleration in the shift to digital models of working and with this has come a period of great learning. Our brains have been processing new information which has had a dramatic impact on perceived mental workload.
In late 2020, working with the Amsterdam based Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMa), my organisation Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), launched a study to better understand the dynamics of mental workload and its management. To aid our understanding, CEBMa undertook a rapid evidence assessment, critically reviewing peer reviewed mental workload research. Placed alongside our previous research into knowledge worker productivity and cognitive performance, as well as our lived experiences, a clearer picture of what people had been experiencing during the pandemic has emerged.
Tasks performed by the brain can be anything from as simple as making a cup of tea (and all the constituent micro tasks associated with it) to undertaking a complex mathematical calculation.
Human brains undertake myriad daily tasks which vary in complexity or difficulty, in importance or urgency, and can be performed under pressure or undertaken with anticipation. Each task has a mental cost associated with it called the ‘task load’. The task load remains the same regardless of who is performing the task. The mental workload associated with performing it is specific to the individual and the circumstances in which the task is performed.
For example, two people asked to perform the same mathematical task may report different levels of mental workload due to differences in their respective arithmetic skills or their degree of practice and expertise with similar tasks. If one is a hot-shot mathematician, the mental workload experienced by the brain is lower than if the other has lower level of mathematical skill. The more skilled and experienced you are in relation to the task, the lower the mental workload placed on your brain.
But skills and experience are not the only factors that contribute to mental workload. Performance also varies depending on the alertness and the internal rhythms of the individual. For instance, a task may have a higher mental workload for the same person at different times of the day.
The contextual conditions under which a task is executed can increase or decrease the mental workload too. If a task is performed in an environment with constant interruptions, time pressure, and a high volume of information to absorb, mental workload goes up. Yet, situations in which autonomy in how and when a task is performed can lead to a reduction in mental workload.
The way information is presented to the brain also plays a part. The richer the media in conveying the task to the brain, the easier the brain finds it. A picture that conveys a message will create a lower mental workload than four paragraphs of text conveying the same message. What’s more, mental workload is lower if enthusiasm for the task is high and the emotional state of the individual is positive.
Our research into the productivity of knowledge-based teams identified six factors proven to make a difference to team performance. Two of these – trust and social cohesion – come into play in relation to mental workload. When colleagues are not socially cohesive (e.g. finding themselves walking on eggshells in the office), the mental workload of undertaking a task where different views are held will be higher than a team that feels comfortable managing differing opinions. Social cohesion enables people to express their views without fear and is often associated with trust.
Socially cohesive teams create lower mental workloads. Teams that trust each other will see a reduction in their mental workload as colleagues rely on the information shared with them, and don’t need to worry about the quality and timing of the delivery of delegated tasks.
A task undertaken in a noisy office environment or in an uncomfortable position or temperature adds more to mental workload than an environment without distractions.”
Environment matters too. A task undertaken in a noisy office environment or in an uncomfortable position or temperature adds more to mental workload than an environment without distractions. An additional mental workload is placed on the brain in maintaining body temperature and filtering out distractions.
Community of brains
Our research suggests that competing demands on the brain’s resources have a cumulative impact on its workload and is profound both for people’s mental wellbeing and productivity. Importantly, this means organisations are connected communities of brains that each contain unique knowledge, experience, and capacity. The cognitive capacity of an organisation is at least the aggregation of its brain power, which means companies must put as much emphasis on managing people’s cognitive capacity and mental workload as they do on their financial resources. However, few leaders have a clear mental model or language for managing mental workload.
We believe mental workload management needs to become a core feature in the C-suite. A new language and a way of thinking about tasks, mental workload and cognitive resources will help sustain high performance while ensuring employees’ wellbeing. Leaders and workers need an enhanced understanding of the dynamics set out in this article to manage their organisation’s cognitive resources effectively. The pandemic has given us a sneak preview of the future if we choose to ignore the management of mental workload.
If you consciously manage your corporate cognitive resources well, you will maximise your cognitive resources. If you don’t, you run the risk of poor performance and poor mental health.