Collage of a young woman clutching her head as if she is experiencing cognitive overload. She is seated at an office desk with a laptop and lamp. The background behind her is pastel orange.
Image: © deagreez/Stock.adobe.com

What is cognitive overload and are you experiencing it?

22 Nov 2023

HR professional Jennifer Kraszewski has some tips for employers and employees struggling with cognitive overload, to prevent a slide into burnout.

You know when you feel like your brain is about to leak out of your ears and onto the keys of your overworked laptop? It’s the human equivalent of an error 404 message; you just cannot compute because you’re too frazzled and overstimulated. That’s cognitive overload.

As regular readers of our careers advice section will know, we have written a lot on the topic of burnout – including about the different stages of burnout and how to recover from burnout. We were intrigued to see what the phrase ‘cognitive overload’ has to do with burnout. Is it a distant cousin or in fact a stage on the way to needing medical intervention?

To find out more, we consulted Jennifer Kraszewski, VP of HR at human capital management software provider Paycom. She defined cognitive overload as “a state of mental exhaustion that happens when there is more demand on someone’s working memory than they have capacity to manage.”

“Cognitive overload can occur when workers bite off more than they can chew and have too much work with too little time.”

“This means that their working memory — the part of the brain that temporarily holds information while performing cognitive tasks — is overwhelmed or overloaded and cannot work at its full potential.”

A precursor to burnout

With regards to its connection to burnout, Kraszewski says that it can be a precursor to it. “When someone is suffering cognitive overload too often, they can become tired and stressed, and when not managed soon enough, that can turn into burnout.”

So, how can employers and employees safeguard themselves against cognitive overload? “Workers can avoid cognitive overload by being open with their managers and HR teams about how much is too much for them,” says Kraszewski. “Employees can speak with their managers to find ways to streamline tasks and work more efficiently and effectively. There might be HR software in place that workers don’t know about that can be to their benefit, or there may be different ways to divide project tasks across the team.”

Be wary of symptoms in your staff

Openness and honesty are key to finding a balance that works for everyone. Employers need to be cognisant of the signs that their employees are struggling, too, so that their team’s stress doesn’t escalate. According to Kraszewski, there are four main things to watch out for ­– although she prefaces her advice with the warning that everyone is different.

“Every person is different, but there are several symptoms managers should keep in mind when trying to detect signs of cognitive overload.” These are:

Lack of concentration

“Consider whether people are having trouble focusing, are asking questions with too much detail or are making requests that seem out of the ordinary for them,” says Kraszewski. “These could be signs that your team members aren’t working at their full potential because their brains are unable to extract and interpret information properly.”

Dips in productivity

“If your normally fast-paced employee is suddenly not meeting deadlines, working slowly or turning in assignments that are not of the high quality they are capable of, they may be slowing down because the pace of their working memory is delayed due to having too much to process.”

Signs of stress

“If your employees seem to be irritable or overwhelmed or directly share that they are stressed, that is another sign they may be experiencing cognitive overload,” according to Kraszewski. “They may have more on their plate than they can handle.”

Poor decision-making skills

If you’re seeing someone’s work or recommendations are not up to their usual standard, cognitive overload could be to blame. When one’s working memory is over-capacity, they cannot think clearly or make sound decisions, Kraszewski says.

Preventing cognitive overload is never going to be 100pc successful because people have external stressors in life that employers cannot control. However, the things they do have control over – such as making time for regular breaks for staff, getting rid of outdated technology and providing access to wellbeing programmes – should be implemented. This is clearly for everyone’s sake.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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