The DNA of Work

Why can't I think?

October 12, 2021 Season 1 Episode 11
The DNA of Work
Why can't I think?
Show Notes Transcript

Are there times when you just can’t get started on a piece of work? Do you find it difficult to focus sometimes, particularly when there are constant interruptions? Does working with people you don’t know well feel like hard work?

These situations and many more reflect the level of mental workload we experience under different conditions. They are a combination of many factors – some of which have been researched and links have been established, so we know that they definitely have an impact on the load that we experience. Aspects such as the strength of our personal relationships and trust can  help reduce the amount of mental workload we experience.

Our guests, both authors of AWA’s recent research, share some examples of how to unlock the reasons why our mental workload is affected, and what we might be able to do to combat the effect. Raising awareness is important, so we can be more self-aware and equipped to help ourselves (and others in our team) by taking positive action. 

 AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Colombine Gardair, Senior Associate, Cognitive Science, AWA
  • Lara Al Ansari, Associate, Research & Development, AWA

 AWA Guest details:  


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 
Advanced Workplace Associates:     

 AWI contacts: David Smalley and Brad Taylor 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:02 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. Are there times when you just can't get started on a tricky piece of work? Do you find yourself wondering why working with some people just seems to wear you down? Our latest research identified some factors that impact our mental workload, helping to give us all an insight into why sometimes we feel we just can't think. Let's find out more.

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:00:55 Karen Plum
It's fair to say that many people have been grappling with an increased mental workload over the last 18 months. Many things contribute to how we feel and how we manage our work tasks. 

Earlier this year we decided to look at academic research to find out what factors impact our mental workload, so we could find ways to help people manage that sense of being overwhelmed by their tasks and how they could help other people. 

We're going to explore this today with the authors of the research. So welcome to AWA’s Colombine Gardair making her debut on the podcast. Hello, Colombine.

00:01:31 Colombine Gardair
Hi Karen.

00:01:33 Karen Plum
And to Lara Al Ansari, who is making a welcome return to the podcast - hi Lara.

00:01:38 Lara Al Ansari
Hi Karen.

00:01:40 Karen Plum
So let's get down to details. Colombine, can you explain a bit more about what we researched and how we went about it?

00:01:48 Colombine Gardair
Yeah, sure. Initially we started looking at whether or not there was a limit to the capacity of the brain - that was really what set us on that journey because we wanted to understand the concept of burnout, for instance. And where that took us was actually very different to what we had initially started with, because we realized that actually there isn't a particular limit per se capacity to the brain, and also the fact that actually burnout is something that isn't well defined at the moment.

There isn't enough research and findings out there to really define burnout because academics just don't agree on what it is currently. So we end up talking about the concept of mental workload which has been researched for over 40 years and is a very well known topic in ergonomics especially, when we talk about critical situations, trying to understand, how do people perform on tasks and what kind of cost is there to their cognition or to their mental capacity.

00:02:54 Karen Plum
Right, so we're not looking at brain capacity in totality - even if there is such a thing as an ultimate capacity, which I think everybody seems to agree, there isn't because the brain is ultimately flexible and capable of deploying its resources in different ways. So we're looking at a much more specific topic of how tasks are executed because that's much easier for the researchers to research, is that right?

00:03:24 Colombine Gardair
Yeah, that's right. And the other thing is that where we found capacity is in what's called working memory, which is a part of all of our memory system which enable us to perform tasks. And this has a capacity which is like a sketch pad where you can hold your information when you're trying to perform a task. Let's say I'm trying to perform a mathematical operation, then I still need to hold in my memory the different numbers that I'm trying to add together for instance, but that has a limited capacity, and it's something that we use for a very short period of time.

So this is what led us to the concept of mental workload because mental workload and working memory are extremely linked.

00:04:12 Karen Plum
Right, so what is the capacity of our working memory?

00:04:16 Colombine Gardair
The researchers tend to settle on the concept of four chunks of items, and we talk of chunks of items because you can improve your working memory capacity by grouping items together, so think about a phone number, for instance, how would you give me a phone number - any phone number?

00:04:38 Karen Plum
In a group of numbers, because I think about them in the first bit and the second bit so it's 07958 and then you know, whatever the second part is.

00:04:47 Colombine Gardair
Because holding all 10 numbers or however long the phone number is nowadays, is just too many things, so we group them in up to four chunks. If you're French, it's 4 chunks of 2, in England, it tends to be 3 chunks of 3, or it tends to be grouped in three chunks, but that enables us to then hold that information for that short period of time within the capacity of our working memory.

00:05:14 Karen Plum
I think that's an interesting thing for people to bear in mind, because obviously when we get interrupted when we're holding those four things in memory, then perhaps something falls out of our memory, and so when we go back to the task, it then becomes more difficult - or “where's that bit of information gone?” and what was I trying to do?

00:05:33 Colombine Gardair
Yes, exactly.

00:05:34 Karen Plum
So I think if I remember correctly, there were a number of different factors that we identified through the academic research that was found. Lara, can you tell us a little bit about the different types of loads that contribute to this overall load on our mental abilities?

00:05:53 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, absolutely. So when researching the factors that contribute to our mental workload, we identified broadly 3 different categories. The first are those aspects relating to the task itself and the extent to which that we can control how we carry that task out. Some examples include how complex the task is or whether the task has an imminent deadline and needs to be completed immediately.

00:06:19 Karen Plum
So the first thing is things to do with the task, so how it's been designed and how we need to carry it out.

00:06:27 Lara Al Ansari
Yes, exactly.

00:06:27 Karen Plum
And those things might not necessarily be in our control - they might be prescribed, or you know, does that make a difference?

00:06:34 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, definitely so whether we have control over how we carry that task out or relating to the execution of the task, or whether that's been prescribed to us.

00:06:45 Karen Plum
So those are all things to do with the task and depending on how the task is presented to us, that's going to start to contribute to our mental workload. So what's the next category?

00:06:57 Lara Al Ansari
The second category relates to us as individuals. This includes our preferences, our skills and experience, but also our emotional state. So, for example, whether I've completed a certain task before and know how to do it quite quickly, or whether I'm dealing with stress resulting from personal circumstances or even how much I actually like doing the task at hand.

00:07:22 Karen Plum
So it might be different on different days then, so depending on my how I feel emotionally that day, that task might feel a lot more heavy or overwhelming than it might do on another day, is that right?

00:07:34 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, exactly right.

00:07:36 Karen Plum
So that starts to make it feel or quite variable, then. What was the 3rd category?

00:07:41 Lara Al Ansari
The 3rd and final category relates to the environment that we work in and the culture of our team or organization. For instance, how noisy the work environment is or how supportive my colleagues are.

00:07:54 Karen Plum
Right, so when we talk about environmental aspects, so it might be the physical environment that we're working in - maybe if it's noisy or if it's too hot, but also if I'm working with people that perhaps you know the working relationship isn't so good, is that going to make the load heavier on my mental resources?

00:08:16 Lara Al Ansari
Definitely. Personal relationships with your colleagues we found to be really quite important because if you don't, for example, trust your colleagues to complete their task in a satisfactory way, then that might be adding to your mental workload.

00:08:32 Karen Plum
OK, so all of these different things then come together. There's quite a lot of different factors then Colombine that weigh on and contribute to that level of our mental workload and I don't think I had any idea that there were so many different factors that were playing a part, but I'm guessing that wasn't a surprise to you?

00:08:51 Colombine Gardair
I mean there are many different factors and I think you know the research is very focused around very specific type of tasks and therefore isn't necessarily comprehensive. And then I think that what we've seen in the research that we read is that actually it can be any number of things that contribute to your mental workload from things that are happening at that particular moment to things that are happening in your work environment you think that are happening kind of much broader in your life, and all of those things contribute to that mental workload at a particular point in time when you're trying to achieve that task.

I think the other thing that's quite interesting is there are things that you can do to lower that mental workload from a personal perspective. You've got all those factors contributing at any point in time. Because of the way the brain works and because your working memory is strongly associated with your attention, anything that you do that would enable you to block out any kind of distraction will help your mental workload.

And I see here very strong link with today's tendency towards meditation, towards kind of anything that enables you to become more focused and aware of removing distraction in general to enable you to focus on the task at hand. It's as if you know learning to block out those things out of your brain will enable you to be more performant on one particular task.

00:10:27 Karen Plum
So if we are more aware of the things that impact our mental workload, we can take some steps to block some of those things out. And if I understand correctly, that can be sort of quite exponential - you know if you do a couple of things that are really impactful on enabling you to focus, then that can really make a big difference, to alleviate that load.

00:10:48 Colombine Gardair
Absolutely. And it's exponential on both ways. It's the same way that you know if you don't take those steps and you let what you think are little things piling up that exponential load onto your mental workload actually is there too, so it's being aware in general of what might contribute and what might help, I think. It's a matter of balance that's really important.

00:11:11 Karen Plum
Yes, and I think one of the reasons we were so excited about this research was that none of this is really rocket science. And if you raise people's awareness of the things that are going on, make them more aware of the impact that some of these things are having, it's a bit like, you know, understanding how important sleep is for you or hydration or exercise. There are things that we can do. 

OK, so there's lots of different factors that are contributing to our mental workload. What's the outcome of all of that? - what's going to be happening?

00:11:47 Lara Al Ansari
With mental workload it has quite an impact. We found the research to show that it really has quite an impact on task performance, so how well you do in your task at hand but also on your wellbeing as well.

00:12:11 Karen Plum
Well, let's think about it from a practical point of view. If I'm experiencing a challenge in my work, how would this research actually help me? How am I going to use it? 

Let me perhaps take an example. So this morning I was trying to get started on a task that I've been honestly quite dreading and putting it off for days. I'm not really sure what the problem is, but I'm sure that resonates with other people – that people just can't get started on a particular activity. So what would the research suggest might be going on, then Colombine?

00:12:46 Colombine Gardair
Well, the research might suggest that if you're struggling to get started with a particular task, there are many things that could be at play. There could be that you've got a lot going on at the moment or too little. So where do you feel at the moment in that regard? Do you have a lot going, on or is it quite quiet?

00:13:09 Karen Plum
There is a lot going on at the moment, but also this is a task that that I haven't really done before. I have to write a new report on a subject that I'm not very expert in. Between you, me and the audience, it's difficult to admit that perhaps I'm not feeling up to that task

00:13:28 Colombine Gardair
And is it a task that you're excited about? Is it something that you want to do?

00:13:32 Karen Plum
Not, not so much.

00:13:34 Colombine Gardair
So see we already, you know, based on the factors that Lara has been telling us about earlier, we're already starting to unpick a couple of things. So your level of expertise on the task isn't, you know, as you said, isn't particularly great, which might impact on your ability to perform on the task, but also might impact on your feelings and emotion towards the task. 

And in general, depending on your personality, that might add to the burden if you're someone who's very keen to constantly perform - then getting started on a task that's out of your comfort zone will increase your mental workload because of that personality trait on top of it, so plus if it's a task that you just really don't want to be doing for any other reason because it's been dumped on you and you have to do it for yesterday.

00:14:33 Karen Plum
And that.

00:14:33 Colombine Gardair
All of that will add to that mental workload and as a result it gets really hard to even just get started because it's going on in circle in your head.

00:14:45 Karen Plum
There's a big barrier. I suppose I spend more time thinking about how difficult it's going to be, rather than actually getting started on it. So the number of different things are in play there. So Lara, what advice might you be able to give me, based on the research?

00:15:02 Lara Al Ansari
So first and foremost, I would recommend practicing some self-awareness and some reflection. Now we touched on this earlier, but I do think it will be a running theme throughout this discussion here. But in this situation some reflection or some self-awareness would really be helpful in order to understand exactly why we can't get started or why we're finding it hard to get started. 

What factors might be contributing to my mental workload? It might actually have nothing to do with the task at hand, so discussion is really quite key here. Reaching out and seeking support from others to help you get to the bottom of why you're feeling a certain way. 

Perhaps you've never done a task before, as in your situation, Karen. Take a step back and ask yourself where or who rather might you be able to turn to provide you with some guidance? Or maybe you've done the task before but you realize that perhaps you didn't have the right skills required to effectively carry out the task. 

Ask yourself, how can I secure the required skills? Who can I turn to help me secure those required skills? So it's really about practicing that self-awareness and having those open and honest discussions with others.

00:16:24 Karen Plum
Yeah, it's a bit of bravery there as well isn't there, of feeling able to admit the situation that you're in rather than being Superwoman, or you know, not wanting to let anybody down, which I think is very often the situation.

00:16:37 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, definitely.

00:16:41 Karen Plum
So let's take another example, now I've got some free advice coming through the podcast! There are times when I just can't focus on my work, and again I can't always figure out what's going on, so I'm starting to get some clues from the discussion that that we've been having and Colombine, if I'm thinking about the current report that I'm working on, the deadline is very close and pulling all the pieces together is quite tricky and I keep getting people putting more meetings into my calendar or contacting me for different things.

And that's really just making the whole thing seem a lot bigger and a lot more of a challenge. So how might you interpret that through the research?

00:17:30 Colombine Gardair
Well, the research shows that actually distraction and interruption as well as time management are some of the key things that add to the mental workload. So I would suggest and recommend that you look at it from a prioritizing perspective and of all those meeting and those tasks that are being thrown at you, can you discharge some? Can you postpone some? Can you maybe put them away until you've reached that deadline? 

The research shows that people will react differently, so some people are just very easily happy to go – “I'm just going to shut down until I'm done with that task and nothing else is going to distract me because that's my deadline, that's what I'm focusing on and everybody else can just you know…”

00:18:25 Karen Plum
Get over it, yeah?

00:18:26 Colombine Gardair
Yeah, whereas other people, again there is that aspect of personality. Other people find it a lot harder to prioritize or they feel like every request coming to them is a priority. If you've got a tendency to be a people pleaser, you're going to want to make sure that you satisfy everybody.

00:18:46 Karen Plum

00:18:47 Colombine Gardair
So it's about finding the right level of balance and finding the techniques that work for you. By knowing yourself first and foremost. Yeah, knowing you Karen, I would expect that you're on that - I need to get everything done in the time that everybody has been putting demands on me for. And sometimes it might be about you know just saying no and refusing to do things for a moment and say I'm sorry I'm going to book my calendar for the next three days until I finish that because this is actually impacting on my mental workload everywhere else. Because until you've done that, you're not going to be able to perform anywhere else because it's still going to be at the back of your head.

00:19:34 Karen Plum
Yeah, it's a bit like a vicious circle, isn't it really? More of those factors come into play and you know, so if there's a time pressure and there's some complexity in the task, then those things are going to start to really weigh heavily on my mental workload.

So Lara, in terms of how I might be able to manage better - are there some strategies you can recommend?

00:19:59 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, absolutely. And just to re-emphasize self-awareness as Colombine mentioned is key here as well. It's important to reflect on why it's difficult to focus. What other factors could be contributing to your mental workload? But also what would be really helpful is to for example, have an agreed team interruption strategy.

One person’s interruption might not be too detrimental to another, and so it's about having those open and honest conversations about what you feel gets in the way of you doing your work.

00:20:34 Karen Plum
Yeah, so I guess having an agreement with other people or at least raising the subject and for us to talk about it because I'm sure other people must have to deal with the same thing.

00:20:47 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, definitely. On an individual level, if you find noise distracting, for example, try to find a quiet place to do your work, or as Colombine mentioned, if instant messages and emails are getting in the way, turn off your notifications. If you use Microsoft Teams for example, you could change your availability to “Do not disturb”.

So realistically, there are many ways that you could help protect yourself from those interruptions, but it starts from knowing exactly what is getting in the way.

00:21:23 Karen Plum
Right, now we're going to have a quick break and we'll be back with another puzzle for Lara and Colombine after this message.

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00:22:24 Karen Plum
Welcome back. So I have a final situation that a friend shared with me the other day. They said they're fed up being the parent all the time with their team. Is this about the same stuff or are there other things going on here do you think Lara?

00:22:38 Lara Al Ansari
Well, first I'd like to ask what she means by parent. Could you elaborate on that, Karen?

00:22:46 Karen Plum
They said that with their team they've got three particular people in the team. One is very capable, so they aren't worried about her. They know that person seems to be quite competent, but another one is new to the team and they don't know if he's capable or not yet because they just don't have enough experience working with that person. And then the third individual has kind of been seconded into the team, so she's an unknown quantity as well. So there's a lot going on there really.

00:23:20 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, definitely. And the research shows that teams and culture have quite a big impact on mental workload and more specifically that social support and trust in team colleagues can really impact mental workload.

00:23:35 Karen Plum
What do you mean by social support?

00:23:38 Lara Al Ansari
So social support refers to the working relationships that you have with your colleagues. And it really relates into trust as well, whether you feel that you can work productively with your colleagues, whether you feel that they would recognize your successes, for example, so it really ties into that working relationship that you have with your team members.

00:24:01 Karen Plum
So the way I or my friend you know the way we interact with those people and if there are new people in the team, I guess we maybe just don't have established relationships yet. So that's going to make it harder on their mental workload.

00:24:16 Lara Al Ansari
Absolutely and in your friend’s situation, she also wasn't too familiar or too confident in the knowledge and the capabilities of her team members. And so she didn't necessarily trust them to get the work done on their own and because of this, she probably felt like she needed to parent her colleagues in order to get the task done in a manner that she deemed satisfactory.

00:24:41 Karen Plum
What level of additional mental workload is that going to put on that person managing the team?

00:24:48 Lara Al Ansari
It would definitely add to the mental workload of that person, because they feel that they need to step in and really get into that work when in reality they should be able to delegate the tasks to their colleagues and trust them to get that done in a way that works for everyone.

00:25:07 Karen Plum
Does it mean that if I'm working with somebody that is inexperienced and I don't know very well then that's going to contribute to my mental workload 'cause I'm worrying about them or wondering what's going to happen if they don't get the job done? Is that really how it works?

00:25:24 Lara Al Ansari
It is, and it also if you take a step back contributes to the new starters mental workload because they've never done the task before as well. So it's a situation that goes both ways.

00:25:38 Karen Plum
Wow, that's really interesting and I can see how that applies to me quite a lot, so I'm guessing as well that there's a dose of self-awareness that is in order here Colombine, but is there anything else that that we can be thinking about in this context?

00:25:54 Colombine Gardair
Yes, absolutely. I mean building trust and social cohesion's in teams is really important and not just building it, but sustaining it as well. And coming back to that new starter example, if you think about it, if you've ever been in a work situation where you've lost a team member that you trusted, the loss of that team member is, of course a burden on you as a manager and on the team because you've got that additional workload that needs to be covered on top of trying to find somebody else to replace them, et cetera, et cetera.

Until you've established trust in that new starter, until you know that you can give them a task and they'll go and do it with little supervision with the right level of delivery time, until you come back to that place where you can go OK, I can delegate and completely take that task off my workload and off my mental workload, you haven't quite reached that perfect onboarding stage until you've got there.

And that will happen faster actually, if you've got great social cohesion in your team, and if you're somebody who trusts and who is trusted as a manager or as a as a colleague in general. Because if you think about it, when you have that new person in your team, if you've got good social cohesion already existing in the team, then it's not going to be just down to you as a manager to get them to understand the way the team work, you're going to have that entire team to support you do that and everybody is going to contribute. Everybody is going to do their load and therefore the added mental workload becomes distributed across the team rather than resting on one person’s shoulder.

00:27:46 Karen Plum
So we're sharing it as opposed to just the manager. And you know, it's worth thinking about I guess for any new colleague situation that until they become fully competent and fully trusted, even if it's a small additional load on your mental workload of that person, they're still going to be there. It's really, really fascinating.

00:28:08 Colombine Gardair
And I think you know, on top of that, that's why culture is so important, especially at a team level. And small organizations tend to be very, very attached to their culture and can be quite ruthless in getting rid of people who do not fit in their culture.

I've seen small organization who hire a great performer, but then that great performer just doesn't get the need to be part of that social cohesion, to become a trusted member of the organization and no matter how great performers they are as individual, if they're not team player in an organization that really puts a lot of emphasis and understand the need for social cohesion and trust in teams, then the risk of that individual not being a team player is that they take the whole team down by destroying the social cohesion. 

When you have one member of a team that nobody trusts, it creates lots of distraction and it increase that mental workload for everybody.

00:29:13 Karen Plum
Wow, that's really interesting, isn't it? And we've probably all been in teams where that's happened, so that's really interesting. Thank you very much Colombine for bringing that final point through. I think that's a good place to stop.

Thanks to both of you for sharing all of your insights and knowledge around this research, it's a really exciting time to be sharing this with people, so thank you Colombine and thank you Lara.

00:29:38 Colombine Gardair
Thank you, Karen.

00:29:39 Lara Al Ansari
Thank you, Karen.

00:29:41 Karen Plum
And that's it for this episode. See you again soon.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.