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Cognitive health part of new Swedish work environment strategy

| Text: Fayme Alm

Do you juggle all the balls at once rather than focus on what you should be doing? Or do you prioritise and concentrate on what is the most pressing task? Today’s labour market is really testing our cognitive capacity. More and more of us come down with cognitive ill health.

“There’s a limit for how much information we can process, and how fast. If you are asked to process too much information simultaneously, your main memory becomes a bottleneck,” says Gisela Bäcklander, a researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and expert on sustainable working, cognitive health and productivity. 

Cognition and its challenges

The Nordic Labour Journal meets Gisela Bäcklander to talk about our cognitive abilities and what influences them. But first a definition of this intellectual resource, from the Swedish Work Environment Authority:

“Cognition is how our brains acquire, process, store and retrieve information. Our cognitive abilities allow us to plan and organise our work in the short and long term, assess results, solve problems and make decisions. All this is possible thanks to the many processes happening in our brains, creating thoughts, feelings, memories and activities.”

“It is when we try to do more things at the same time that we risk getting overloaded and develop concentration and memory problems. This is when we increase the risk of making mistakes,” says Gisela Bäcklander. 

A new work environment strategy

Working life has changed over the past decades. People work with information not only in white-collar jobs but in sectors like healthcare, industry and handicraft. At the same time, many working tasks have become more complicated. The Swedish government points to this fact in their new work environment strategy, saying the cognitive work environment plays an increasingly central role in working life. 

“Many of our work environments are not optimised for cognitive health and function, even in the exact types of jobs where we expect this to be the case,” says Gisela Bäcklander.  

Foto:  Appendix Fotografi

Gisela Bäcklander, researcher at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm. Foto: Appendix Fotografi

This is something the government is also addressing in its strategy. It says the issue of increased demands in the workplace is topical because it is a fact "that many, at some stage in life, are facing temporary or permanent cognitive problems.”

Gisela Bäcklander sums up some problems that might be indicators of cognitive stress

  • Concentration problems
  • Memory problems
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty relaxing, tuning out

Others include: 

  • Being irritable
  • Getting very tired after a working day

Such signs can be classified as cognitive ill health, but this does not necessarily mean it is a state of sickness, explains Gisela Bäcklander.

“There are, of course, problems with memory and executive functions that are related to biological health issues like Alzheimer’s, strokes or burn-out which impact on our cognitive function. I have mainly been studying healthy people who are in work, not people on sick leave, and I see that their issues are related to physical, social and organisational factors.”

These three factors are the employer’s responsibility, and they interact with each other while also having an impact on the cognitive environment. 

Gisela Bäcklander has paid a lot of attention to the organisational factor, which is related to people at work. 

“In my previous career, I was a human resources expert and worked as an IT consultant for HR departments. I saw that the hardest problems were not technical projects. Organisational challenges were the most interesting, but we tried to solve them through the use of technology – even when that was not a sufficient solution.”

Some advice 

So what would Gisela Bäcklander recommend for those of us who juggle too many balls instead of doing what we really should be doing? Here are her tips:

  • Clarify tasks, demands and available resources
  • Clear your head
  • Create good routines
  • Don’t try to do everything every day – create theme days
  • Have meeting-free days
  • Take turns being accessible
  • Avoid jam-packed schedules, they leave no room for manoeuvre
  • Schedule your own time, not only meetings
  • Use your energy wisely – which tasks demand the most cognitive capacity?
  • Recharge batteries both “on” the day and “between” days

So what is cognitive health?

“Cognitive health is when you feel you can control your own attention, to manage to follow one thought through to its conclusion,” says Gisela Bäcklander.

Can you manage that?


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