office productivity and mental health

It’s Your Desk, Stupid

Written by Michael Richardson

If you feel like work melted your brain today, you may be right.

Researchers over the decades have endeavored to understand the brain and cognitive functioning. As this understanding has grown, we now know that certain workplace behaviors may actually inhibit our productivity and mental capacity.

Here are some of the ways that paychecks may cost more than we bargained for.

Stress Batters the Brain

Stress sometimes makes us feel frazzled and shriveled. Your brain can relate, unfortunately.

Yale University School of Medicine’s Dr. Rajita Sinha, a neurologist and director of the Yale Stress Center, reported that stress, chronic or from traumatic events, can harm parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and metabolism.

According to, the damage to the brain from stress hurts our ability to restrain ourselves from harmful desires, like for addictive substances. It also hurts our ability to control impulsive behaviors to do dangerous things.

Sounds a whole lot like getting dumber.

According to Sinha, stress most greatly affects the prefrontal cortex and damage there can lead to a variety of mental problems.

“It’s important for top-down regulation of our emotions, cognition, desires, and impulse control,” she said.

We already know stress negatively affects the cardiovascular system and other important body systems. It may be that stress makes us less intelligent as well.

Multi-Tasking: Unproductive, Unwise

Stanford’s Dr. Nass told that chronic multi-taskers may actually be harming their ability to think.

“They are the worst at most kinds of thinking not only required for multi-tasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought,” Nass said in an interview. “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.”

So, settle down and focus on one thing at a time, otherwise you run the risk of being foolish. Besides, though it speaks in the face of reason, chronic multi-taskers are actually the worst at multi-tasking, according to Nass’s research.

Not Moving Equals Brain Shrinking

Our brains are shrinking! Scary, but true.

Beginning in our late 20s, most of us lose about one percent annually in the volume of our hippocampus, the part of the brain used for memory and certain types of learning.

But researchers have found that exercise seems to slow or even reverse this loss in brain volume. A 2011 study had 120 older men and women do walking or stretching programs, and the walking group had larger hippocampi after one year, effectively giving them two more years of hippocampal youth. Stretchers lost volume.

A day at the desk is not only a day free of physical activity, but it also makes working out later more difficult, because we are mentally exhausted. So we just go home and watch TV on the couch instead. Can you feel you brain shrinking?

Find ways to be active at work and plan a weekly exercise routine. It could help save your brain.

Constant Email Checking

You answered 60 emails today and are feeling great about it. Hold your horses, communication pro.

University of California researcher Gloria Mark and colleagues found that a constant flux of email messages causes high levels of stress and hurts one’s ability to concentrate. Their study participants changed computer window screens an average of 37 times per hour, meaning they never focused on any one thing for more than a couple of minutes on average.

That doesn’t sound very smart, let alone productive. And it adds to stress levels, Mark says.

Mark suggested that it may be more productive to answer emails in batches.

“Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she said.

Another study from England supports this idea, finding that constant email checking lowers IQ by about ten points, the equivalent of missing a night’s sleep or smoking marijuana.

Psychiatrist Dr. Glenn Wilson and colleagues at King’s College in London monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day, and found that the habit of over-checking emails is a “widespread phenomenon.”

“We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness,” Wilson said to

One Track Mind: Mental Power Requires Mental Exercise

It is difficult to learn new skills if your job does not require it. After five years on the job, many careers leave little left to learn.

But learning new skills and remaining mentally active is important for our future health, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF).

“Just as we exercise our bodies to keep them in working order, so must we exercise our brains to stay mentally agile and adept,” the GMHF advises. “It’s the use-it-or-lose-it theory.”

Work out your brain daily and it may help ward off dementia later in life, like Alzheimer’s disease. Stimulating new areas of the brain is one way to keep the mind fit. Learning a new language or a new instrument, solving a puzzle and writing a story are just some ways to challenge yourself intellectually. At work there are ways to stimulate your intellect to make sure you are utilizing that wonderful tool we all have: the brain.

If You Hate It, It Hurts You: Careers Define Well-Being

If your desk has become an instrument of torture, make some changes or suffer the mental and health consequences. A job is a job, it’s true, but for people who dislike their job or feel disconnected from it, work can be awful for general wellness. Some, like Gallup, suggest that career may be the single most important element of one’s well-being.

Gallup keeps track of the differences between “engaged” workers and “disengaged” workers, meaning workers who like their work and feel involved in it versus those who don’t. The differences are stark. Engaged workers are twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall compared to disengaged employees, reported. In fact, only 23 percent of employees who don’t feel engaged in their work say their health is “excellent.” That level of health is on par with those who are unemployed. The mind is included as part of wellness. Disengaged workers are much more likely to be depressed and anxious, studies show.

The research in this article shows how jobs can cost us mental capacity and mental health, but most of these costs are completely voluntary. You can lower stress, be active and stop multi-tasking whenever you want. You’re already giving time, sweat and tears to your work, so there’s no need to give your mental health, too.

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Michael Richardson

Michael Richardson

Managing Editor at Healthy Magazine
Michael is the managing editor of Healthy Magazine, with years of experience writing about many aspects of health. He can't imagine a field more relevant to every living person.
Michael Richardson

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