Have you ever watched a presentation where the information was so dense and fast-paced that your brain struggled to keep up? Or perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you had to simultaneously respond to work-related emails and brainstorm ideas for an upcoming project, all while working in a busy open office space? Maybe you’ve been handed a project at work that seemed to come with an overwhelming number of tasks and deadlines? If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’ve experienced the concept of cognitive load—the mental strain we encounter when faced with tasks that demand a significant amount of our cognitive resources.
Our cognitive resources are valuable, but they’re also limited, much like a computer’s processing power. When computers encounter tasks that demand too much effort, they overheat. When we encounter tasks that demand too much mental effort, our cognitive load increases, our ability to perform effectively can be compromised, and our physical and mental well-being may be impacted.
What’s the difference between extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load?
Think back to that overwhelming multitasking situation. Attempting to respond to emails while brainstorming project ideas while in a noisy environment can lead to what psychologists term “extraneous cognitive load.” This happens when we try to manage multiple tasks that don’t complement each other. When we attempt to manage all of them at once, our cognitive resources are spread thin and our brains struggle to process the information. This can feel overwhelming, decrease our performance and lead to a higher likelihood of making mistakes.
Now, consider the dense, rapid-fire presentation. Such situations often trigger “intrinsic cognitive load,” the mental effort required to understand and process the actual content or subject matter. When content is complex and presented without any scaffolding or organization, you’re forced to invest more cognitive resources to decipher the material, leaving less mental capacity for learning or problem-solving.
How does cognitive load impact mental wellness?
Regardless of the type of cognitive load experienced, the mental demands employees face can influence their productivity, their job satisfaction, engagement, attendance and their mental and physical health. When cognitive load is elevated, the body’s stress response is activated, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate and sharpening focus, prolonged elevated cognitive load can be problematic. It can contribute to cardiovascular issues, disrupt sleep patterns and other health problems. While our bodies adapt in the short term, prolonged elevated cognitive load can become problematic without adequate rest and recovery.
Why should employers be concerned with cognitive load?
Cognitive load is intricately tied to employee experience and engagement. Why? Because it influences how employees perceive their work and their employment. When individuals are overwhelmed by cognitive demands, their attention becomes fragmented, and they can struggle to focus. This can manifest as decreased attention, lowered motivation and heightened stress, with obvious impacts to productivity.
In fast-paced call centers, customer service representatives juggle numerous tasks simultaneously—listening to customers, accessing information and navigating ticketing systems. The constant influx of information and the need to provide timely responses can overwhelm cognitive resources, reducing the quality of their interactions.
During organizational transformations, such as mergers or technology implementations, employees face increased cognitive demands. They must adapt to new procedures, roles and technologies while continuing to manage their existing responsibilities. The changes can create uncertainty and cognitive overload, making it challenging for employees to absorb new information. This often results in resistance to change, decreased morale and impacts on performance. A study on transformations showed their impact on cognitive load results in higher work stress and lower job satisfaction. Ultimately, transformation risk increases with the scale of the transformation due to the cumulative impact of broad, sustained increases in cognitive load.
Professions like air traffic control, healthcare and emergency response also illustrate the impact of high cognitive load. Air traffic controllers must process immense amounts of information and make split-second decisions that impact passenger safety. Similarly, healthcare professionals must manage patient care, documentation and complex procedures simultaneously. First responders must rapidly assess and navigate chaotic scenes, requiring them to allocate cognitive resources judiciously. Receptiviti initiated a four-year longitudinal study of 6,500 healthcare professionals and found that prolonged elevated cognitive load is correlated with decreased capacity for analytical thinking, increased stress and anxiety, and decreased levels of empathy. Elevated cognitive load affects not just employees, but also the people they interact with.
How can you drive high performance with cognitive load metrics?
Recognizing the intrinsic link between cognitive load and key performance indicators like workforce productivity, performance, engagement and safety highlights the importance of its measurement. By leveraging cognitive load data, organizations can gain powerful insights to inform decision-making and strategic planning and enable the proactive tailoring of roles, training and support systems to create a healthier work environment. Breaking complex tasks into manageable steps or providing sufficient breaks are simple ways to prevent burnout and support sustained productivity.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated remote work, and employers now face new challenges in understanding the well-being of their remote teams. But these new challenges have also presented new opportunities for understanding and optimizing how a workforce or a function operates. For example, in call centers, where remote agents field sales calls, support requests and complaints, and where calls are typically recorded for quality purposes, a wealth of data exists that organizations can use to optimize productivity. Using anonymized call recording data aggregated by team leads, organizations can measure cognitive load from transcripts by analyzing speaker language with psychology-based natural language processing technology. In turn, this allows leaders to be proactive in creating work environments that balance high performance with all the benefits of workforce well-being.
Organizations empowered with the insights needed to optimize performance will be better placed to ensure the well-being of their employees, make informed resource allocation decisions, and foster the creative and adaptable work environment that drives company success.