Can Hybrid Work Have A Negative Impact On A Leaders Wellbeing?
"Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane
Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane"
Too Much Information by The police (click here for the song)
Click here for Abbott and Costello's famous "who's on first" dialogue.
“there are days where the beginning of a work meeting feels like a scene from an Abbot and Costello comedy show… "
Most organisations have embraced the idea that hybrid working is the future. As expected, there is a lot of articles, research and advice on the best way to achieve this. The challenge is to find the delicate balance between the needs of individuals, team members, customers, stakeholders and the broader business. Whilst there are corporate policies and procedures, the onus typically falls on the leader to ‘make it work’.
What is the impact of hybrid work on the leader?
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.
In my opinion the contemporary hybrid work context tends to add a greater level of complexity to the work of the leader, resulting in what psychologists call an increased cognitive load.
Researchers have found that to complete any task the following is required:
External sensory inputs,
Accessing acquired, knowledge and skills from long term memory
Attributing meanings to the sensory information, and storing new learned information into the long-term memory. This final step is performed by our working memory.
Whilst our both sensory and long-term memories can manage with large amounts of information, our working memory is comparatively very small.
When a task requires an individual to co-ordinate an impossibly large number of elements, unnecessary demands, the information processing becomes overly complex and there is cognitive overload.
Intrinsic Cognitive Load refers the demand made of a learner by the intrinsic quality of information being learnt. The load exerted on a learner depends on the complexity of the task set or concept being presented, and a learner’s ability to understand the new information.
Extraneous cognitive load is produced by the demands imposed on learners by others it is extraneous to the task, and is increased by distracting information or behaviours or ideas that make a task more complex than it needs to be.
Germane Cognitive Load (schema) is a conceptualisation of a particular idea or object which tells us what to expect when we encounter it in the future.
What happens in real life?
As the complexity of work and associated demands increase, the total load placed on individuals rises. Researchers have found that an increase in complexity in both work and life has an exponential impact on stress and general functioning.
What is the impact of cognitive overload?
“If I hit my maximum cognitive load at work,
how am I experiencing life at home, after hours or on the weekends?” Joseph Freed
While the consequences of overload may vary, they can include increase in mistakes, decline in performance and a deterioration in intrapersonal and communication skills. Researchers have found that physicians approaching the point of cognitive overload may begin to exhibit symptoms similar to depression, with the addition of deterioration in quality or quantity of work, relative to their own previous standard.
What about those who appear to be “day dreaming”?
Regular readers would be aware that there are many people who simply tune out when things get boring or complicated. Generally, people engage in mind wandering when bored, stressed, tired, or in a busy environment. Researchers found that people with a low working memory capacity had a greater likelihood of tuning out as things got more difficult. However, there is less mind wandering when individuals are happy and doing a preferred activity.
What can be done?
Whilst hybrid working is everyone’s right it is also everyone’s responsibility.
All employees need to identify the impact of their desired workplace flexibility on others, including their boss.
Agree on boundaries of hybrid work that minimises the cognitive load on everyone
Regular readers would be aware that self awareness and emotional intelligence are critical leadership skills. Successful hybrid workplaces require a culture of empathy, compassion and genuine care for the well-being of all employees.
Waude, A. (2017). Cognitive Load Theory: How ‘Cognitive Load’ Affects Memory. [online] Psychologistworld.com. Available at: https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/cognitive-load-theory. Jarrett, C. (2020). Cognitive Load Theory: Explaining our fight for focus. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201103-cognitive-load-theory-explaining-our-fight-for-focus. Iskander, M. (2018). Burnout, Cognitive Overload, and Metacognition in Medicine. Medical Science Educator, 29(1), pp.325–328. doi:10.1007/s40670-018-00654-5. Brie Weiler Reynolds (2017). The Complete History of Working from Home. [online] FlexJobs Job Search Tips and Blog. Available at: https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/complete-history-of-working-from-home/. Freed, J. (n.d.). Council Post: Why Cognitive Load Could Be The Most Important Employee Experience Metric In The Next 10 Years. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinessdevelopmentcouncil/2020/06/30/why-cognitive-load-could-be-the-most-important-employee-experience-metric-in-the-next-10-years/?sh=7791495b362f [Accessed 14 Jun. 2022]. Hyman, I.E., Burland, N.K., Duskin, H.M., Cook, M.C., Roy, C.M., McGrath, J.C. and Roundhill, R.F. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27(2), pp.204–215. doi:10.1002/acp.2897.