Way back in February last year, World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus prophetically stated ‘we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic’.

At the time, he was referring to the issue of fake news which was then, and is still now, a major challenge in responding to the pandemic. But it also heralded another issue that was yet to show its true colours: cognitive overload.

Emails. Zoom calls. Social media notifications. News. Press conferences. Doomscrolling. The amount of incoming information seemed to escalate as the world changed. And it’s never ceased, leaving us with foggy brains that struggle to make decisions.

Simply put, our brains are taking on too much. And just as people have been protected from physical overloads at work, organisations need to consider how they can help their people deal with this newer and somehow trickier beast, cognitive overload.

Every time employees use their brain, there is a cost of time and effort. Organisations need to create environments less saturated with overload. Click To Tweet

We’re all (still) in this together

Cognitive load theory (CLT) is nothing new. First developed by Australian education psychologist John Sweller in the 1980s and 90s, CLT helps to explore and explain how much information our brains can handle. 

It’s built on two basic and commonly accepted ideas. First, our brains can only process a limited amount of new information at any one time. Secondly, the limits to how much stored information our brains can process is unknown. 

The infodemic is challenging this first idea, pushing our brains to the limit.

When it comes to the workplace, this plays out in our changed working conditions. Microsoft research found that remote collaboration is more mentally taxing than in-person collaboration and that brainwave markers associated with overwork and stress are significantly higher in video meetings compared to non-meeting work like writing emails. 

And that’s before we even get to the bombardment of information coming in from the non-work environment.

Because cognitive overload is experienced individually, the temptation is to push the burden of managing it onto the individual. Take breaks. Do yoga. Turn off your notifications. 

But it’s not always that easy for individuals to draw these boundaries themselves. Instead, the problem should be viewed systemically, with leaders taking up the responsibility of helping their people manage it.

Three ways to reduce cognitive overload

1. Ruthlessly prioritise

Despite the rumours, not everything can be important all at once. Leaders need to ruthlessly and realistically prioritise what needs to be done and then communicate these priorities to their people and empower them to make decisions based on this shared understanding.

2. Set boundries

Setting healthy boundaries is essential for managing cognitive load. And it requires a nuanced approach. Leaders need to be sensitive to all the demands on their people, not simply work-related demands, as well as how these demands ebb and flow.

Take the situation of employees who are in a location that moves in and out of lockdown. These people may suddenly have their children home from school or childcare. Even when not in lockdown, the uncertainty of what’s around the corner may still be unsettling.

In short, leaders should never make assumptions about the cognitive load of any individual. 

Instead, conscious thought should go into each act that adds to that load. Emails are a great example – establishing boundaries around responding to emails out of hours, as well as limiting the number of emails sent can make a real difference. Try weeding out the unnecessary one-liners, repetitive and procedural emails and focus on essential, thoughtful communications. 

Try weeding out repetitive and procedural emails and focus on essential, thoughtful communications. Click To Tweet

3. Create a culture of continuous listening

The demands contributing to our cognitive load are constantly shifting and organisations need to mirror this in their response. 

Leaders need to ask for feedback that can help them understand both the obvious and less obvious factors that may be pushing their people towards burnout. Adopting a more agile approach to feedback not only uncovers more real-time data to found targeted action as well as creating more opportunities for connection.

It’s all about helping people to feel better and work better. 

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