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How HR can spot—and solve—your team’s cognitive overload

Jennifer Kraszewski
Jennifer Kraszewski
Jennifer Kraszewski, Paycom’s senior executive vice president of human resources, has more than 25 years of HR leadership experience, driving transformative, business-focused human capital strategies in high-growth industries to achieve efficiencies, compliance and employee engagement. Named by Human Resource Executive as one of the Top 100 HR Tech Influencers in 2020 and 2021, Kraszewski is a featured blogger and hosts webinars on HR topics through the Society for Human Resource Management, HR Daily and HR.com. She is SPHR- and SHRM-SCP-certified.

Imagine you’re stopping by an employee’s desk to inquire about an update on a project they know well. When you ask them about its status, they struggle to recall what should be simple information. They’re clearly hard at work. You see them moving at high speed all day, and you know they prepared with their internal team just yesterday. So, where did the information go?

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These types of scenarios are all too common in today’s high-pressure work environment. And they’re often cases of cognitive overload.

What is cognitive overload?

When our demands exceed our working memory’s capacity, we can experience a state of mental exhaustion called cognitive overload.

Working memory is the part of our brain that temporarily holds and manages information while we perform cognitive functions. Think of it as a computer’s data cache. It helps us handle tasks like reading, planning and problem-solving.

However, just like a computer struggling because too many files are open, our brain can get bogged down by sorting through too much information at once. Pushing past our limits can cause a mental crash—just like that computer.

This often occurs at work, especially if our role demands heavy multitasking and rapid processing of constant information.

Causes of cognitive overload

Cognitive overload can happen when there’s just too much on our mental plate.

We often expect ourselves and our teams to juggle many tasks at once—managing projects, training, dealing with clients and more. This is especially true in fast-paced jobs or demanding roles. Employees in healthcare, customer service or emergency services are especially prone to cognitive overload.

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Imagine an already stressful job, then throw in the extra strain of navigating antiquated systems or battling software that’s not user-friendly.

Those extra hurdles can be the tipping point for an already overtaxed working memory. Employees feel less focused, less productive and more stressed out.

During especially busy times or when we’re helping new team members settle in, the mental load can escalate quickly. Then, we really see cognitive overload taking a toll.

How HR leaders can identify cognitive overload

While everyone is different, there are several consistent signs of cognitive overload that managers can watch for in their teams. These include:

  1. Lowered concentration: When people start losing focus in meetings, asking overly detailed questions or making out-of-character requests, it’s a hint their concentration is dipping. Their brains are juggling more than they can handle, making it tough to stay on point.
  2. Drop in productivity: If you notice someone who’s usually quick and efficient begin to lag, miss deadlines or deliver lower-quality work, it’s often a sign of cognitive overload. They’re likely struggling to process everything on their plate.
  3. Poor decision-making: Watch out for normally reliable team members making more mistakes or poor choices. This can look like typos, uninformed recommendations or a star teammate missing the mark with their ideas. Feeling rushed and overloaded can cloud thinking, leading to less-than-stellar decisions.
  4. Higher stress: If an employee snaps at a colleague, take note. Irritability, being overwhelmed or direct admissions of stress can all point to a larger problem.
  5. Burnout: The most serious sign is burnout, where ongoing cognitive overload leaves team members feeling deeply exhausted and disengaged. Perhaps a usually passionate contributor now sits quietly in meetings. They may have been running in a state of cognitive overload for too long.

These signs alert you that your employees’ mental computers are crashing. It’s time to take action. Or better yet, be proactive and avoid cognitive overload before it kicks in.

Strategies to help reduce cognitive overload for your teams

Unlike computers, employees experience a range of emotions, including frustration and fatigue. They can greatly benefit from having a little fun. HR leaders can combat cognitive overload in the workplace by supporting balance and easing pressure.

Here are a few key strategies you can employ for reducing cognitive overload:

  1. Invest in employee wellness: Prioritize comprehensive mental and physical health coverage, including family-building support, financial wellness programs and charitable involvement. These benefits show employees they are valued and help them balance their professional and personal lives.
  2. Simplify technology: Streamline work processes by eliminating outdated and frustrating technology. A OnePoll survey commissioned by Paycom found that 71% of employees are frustrated with antiquated systems. Reducing the number of platforms and logins in favor of a single software solution can prevent tech headaches and ease brain strain.
  3. Effective time management: Use software to assess the time spent on tasks and identify automation opportunities. This can help reduce the time employees spend on tasks that are unnecessarily time-consuming. Nothing frees up working memory space faster than getting rid of frustrating busywork.
  4. Encourage breaks and work/life balance: Promote a culture that values regular breaks, including lunch and coffee breaks. And generous paid time-off policies are worth their weight in mental health. No one should be bragging about leaving vacation days on the table. Taking time off is critical to work/life balance, and employees shouldn’t feel guilty about taking it. Supporting that healthy balance is essential to cultures where employees can bring their whole selves to work. When they come back to the office, they’ll return with fresh ideas, renewed energy and clear thinking.
  5. Provide upskilling and learning opportunities: Foster a culture of growth through upskilling and learning opportunities to keep your team engaged and evolving. When you provide your team with resources to learn and grow, they feel more motivated. That helps reduce the risk of cognitive overload.

When you understand the causes of cognitive overload, watch for the signs and take the lead on effective solutions, you’ll free your employees to deliver their best work with clearer minds.

You can create a workplace where human minds and technology complement each other to achieve more—with less stress.