As ridiculously powerful as the brain is, it's still not going to give you lollipops if you load it up like a cheap bookshelf suffering under Encyclopedia Britannica. That, unfortunately, is exactly what tons of us do every day, though, according to Fouad ElNaggar, CEO of employee experience portal Sapho.

"There is a tremendous amount of evidence pointing to the fact that employees today are suffering from incredible cognitive overload," ElNaggar says. "The lack of employee engagement is the biggest indicator--according to a 2017 Gallup State of Work report, almost seven in 10 employees were not engaged or actively disengaged with work. Our greatest asset--our people--are burning out, and you can see it in the trends around thing like attrition and employee absenteeism."

The roots of the problem

ElNaggar points to the accelerating pace of the world as a catalyst for the mental overload issue. Consider, for example, that we expect employees to use more apps and data, collaborate more and hop between new platforms and devices like the iPhone and Slack. This fast rate of change clotheslines most of us into stress and misery, with technology--you know, that stuff that's supposed to make our lives so much better and easier--serving as the arm of a brute.

"Employees are on the clock 24 hours a day,seven days a week and are being interrupted every three minutes during the workday," ElNaggar explains. "They check email 47 times a day--and up to 82 times if they're younger. And it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted. They experience an endless tidal wave of beeps that require an acknowledgement or response and with mobility. On top of that, they have the explosion of applications and the cognitive switching that kills their flow as they alt tab between 30 different apps that all look and work differently. It's no wonder employees are getting fed up."

ElNaggar also highlights a study from University of California Irvine, The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. This work demonstrated that people compensate for the constant barrage of interruptions so common to the typical office employee by working faster. That can backfire, with the employee just getting more stressed out and frustrated until their health--and subsequently, focus, concentration and creativity--all tank.

And why is all this interruption so important? Because on the biological level, the brain actually can't multitask. What it really does is ping very quickly from one task to another. It's this pinging that drains your brain of energy and quickly leads to temporary declines in cognitive function.

Do we even see what's going on?

ElNaggar says that both employers and employees are aware of the cognitive overload problem, even if they don't use that particular term to refer to what's happening. Some employees opt to "vote with their feet", leaving companies where higher-ups don't seem to care or tackle the issue. But on a positive note, lots of employers do recognize the connection between overload and retention, and they refuse to brush cognitive overload under the rug.

"Especially in the last 18 months, we've noticed many companies we work with investing in the employee experience and pursuing a digital workplace strategy," says ElNaggar. "For them, it's a way to attract, empower and retain the best employees."

Strategies to give your brain a break

ElNaggar claims that, as with other business troubles, much of the responsibility for reducing cognitive load sits with leadership. Those at the top have to shift their mindset and embrace the idea that investing in employee experience will help workers stay more engaged and productive. To that end, don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and make your boss or mentors more aware of what you face on a regular basis. If you're still struggling even after they make all the reasonable switches they can, ElNaggar offers three easy tips:

  • "Own your calendar. Don't let people fill your day with meaningless meetings." 
  • "Carve out two windows a day to handle email and then don't allow yourself to be interrupted by notifications during that time."
  • "Don't take your phone into your bedroom so you can really disconnect and wake up and think before reactively reaching for your device."

On top of ElNaggar's approaches, you also might consider these:

  • Pay attention to what you do with the page. Whether you go old school paper and pen or only use mobile, limit the concepts you see at once and make your layout consistent.
  • Break complex information or steps into smaller parts.
  • Build in time to stop and think after an interaction or period of learning. Be able to put the information or event into your own words in a way you understand.
  • Bring in the cavalry. If you do something difficult as a team, each person in the group can share their understanding and support.
  • Reduce as much extraneous "noise" that can distract you as possible. For example, earplugs can block out chatty coworkers, or you can shut your office door so you don't see others walking back and forth.
  • Simplify basic areas of your life. For instance, pull a Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs and wear essentially the same thing every day. Variety inspires innovation, but routine is restful.
  • Establish clear boundaries. In line with ElNaggar's calendar and phone sentiments, when you clock out, you're clocked out. And if you don't have the oomph or desire to listen to Emotional Vampire Jane complain to you for an hour, say so. Don't let anybody manipulate or guilt you into anxiety and worry.

You're going to have a lot thrown at you. That's just life these days. But that doesn't mean you're powerless. Let the options above be your armor and, with your newfound mental clarity, go out and conquer.