What is the curse of the modern workplace?
Stress is NOT Stress – but it might seem like it?
(The medical terms might be brain fatigue or cognitive overload)
I am probably risking major reprisals here, but stress is one of the most miss-used words in the modern language. Maybe 99% of us experience an unpleasant sensation every day and most will call it “Stress”.
Stress has its origins in our primitive past, ultimately when we were threatened by wild beasts or aggressive invaders our reaction was “Fight” or “Flight”. In order for this to happen our body would produce quantities of adrenaline and this chemical would create the energy to fulfill the requirements to fight or flee. In one sense this is a good process, if it did not work then we might not be here today. But in the modern world it is not quite so helpful; too much stress can actually create an almost drunken paralytic state in the short term and over a longer period general physical or mental health problems.
The real difficulty is that somehow our valuable defence system of yesteryear is now getting triggered by (pretty much) trivia. It might be true that a sabre-tooth tiger can and will kill you and the local group of cannibals invitation to lunch is best avoided. But in no way are these threats or dangers on the same level as an overloaded “in box” or a busy schedule. Somehow Homo sapiens in the modern information society rate`s all three threats on a similar level. The overload state of the modern workplace is now reducing efficiency at an alarming rate. The net effect is many of us (or all of us?) describe or complain even, of excessive stress. The effects to health and productivity are a disaster both for the individual and the corporate world.
The paradox is: It is definitely real, it will kill some of us, drive others to drink, break up families, it even links to weight problems – But it is NOT STRESS – it is something else.
We humans are confused by it and certainly do not enjoy it very much. The medical terms would be either Brain fatigue or Cognitive Overload; once you understand this there are simple solutions that do not require drugs, therapy or alcohol to solve them. It does however require management both to control the workload and to manage the after effects if you don’t.
Once you understand how the brain works, its limitations and how these impact on effective thinking you will be able to take effective action to maximise your capabilities; without need for alcohol, drugs or therapy.
Brain fatigue is working the brain too hard for too long
In a general sense you are tired but it is much worse than that. If we took a group of people and made them run round the block for 20 minutes they would be tired. In many respects the fatigue would show as breathlessness, low blood sugar may be short of fluids. But apart from any complaining they would still be mentally quite alert. In this regard brain fatigue is very different. Brain fatigue is outwardly very hard to spot, there are very few outward signs that you could measure – only the onset of raised voices would offer a clue.
Early stage brain fatigue feels a bit tired, maybe a bit like jet lag. It’s not unusual to feel the need for sugar intake, tea/coffee and/or biscuits
Next stage the mood tends to darken, the sense of tiredness is becoming overwhelming. At this stage poor social skills, rising irritation are not uncommon. Defensive or territorial type mind-set, Emotional balance is not really in equilibrium. Problem solving/creativity impaired.
Next Stage at this point it becomes quite overwhelming, and anger and frustration will follow. It’s possible the person will become clumsy, dropping things/even forgetting things, a blazing row is quite likely
The final stage at this point it can go one of two ways. It really can descend into a very violent outburst, though it is just as likely that the person will retreat, subdued into an unresponsive depressed state
I think we should make the point that the person may sound/appear depressed – This is not quite the same as being clinically depressed. It would be quite wrong to suggest that one bad day at the office makes you mentally ill. However if the pattern was repeated you might see avoidance tactics, absenteeism, mysterious illnesses or poor team relations
Now these are the outward appearances of a condition called brain fatigue, what is not often noticed is the reduction in cognitive (thinking) capacity – problem solving and creativity. As the brain retreats into its smaller primary functions it is less receptive to new ideas or the infinite possibilities at its own disposal. A brain in this state is really is not very good for creative thinking/strategic visions or insightful decision making. The other point for the office psychologists amongst us is that the personality appears to change. It is not necessarily a permanent issue, but it will change people’s nature and make them less easy to deal with. Often creating management staff/morale and productivity issues
If brain fatigue is too much for too long – Cognitive overload is too much At Once
In many respects cognitive overload is the curse of our society. The effect of modern communications technology means the human beings are receiving 10 maybe 100 times more transactions per day when compared with 50 years ago.
In evolutionary terms 50 years is no time at all, but the world of work is completely transformed. Basically the brain has had no time to adjust. This workload needs to be managed, because if you don’t there are consequences.
The modern system of endless communication is a form of “legitimised interruption” I hear tales of people taking 50 sometimes 100 emails in a day and in the end simply not knowing if they are coming or going.
The human brain has a short term memory and it really can remember only five or six things at once.
The constant barrage of information overload pushes the brain increasingly to rely on just its short term function. From a human being perspective the sensations are of complete overload/out of control – It is stressful exhausting and ironically often pointless.
A few people thrive on the stress if the motivation is high enough (Think-City traders) However many people are completely worn out and depression and absenteeism are the most likely outcome.
The unseen danger once again is in thinking capacity.
The more over loaded a short term memory is the less able it is to utilise the full resources of the brain. The capacity of the brain to think, to seek and find solutions and new ideas can be dramatically impaired both from brain fatigue and cognitive overload
Once again the most likely outcome will be more primitive tribal behaviour with poor social skills and more aggression.