Cognitive Function at Work

Cognitive Function

Cognitive function encompasses the brain’s mental processes that lead to acquiring knowledge and information. These mental processes include paying attention, learning abilities, memory, information processing and problem-solving (Michelon, 2006). Our cognitive abilities have a lot to do with how we understand and perceive the world, resulting in how we act in it. These mental abilities and skills are what we are using essentially every moment of our awake life to carry out any and all tasks – from the simplest to the most complex (2006). Cognitive function isn’t necessarily the knowledge you keep in your brain, but rather the ability to store that knowledge and use it. It has more to do with the ways we learn and how we use, process and store that information. It also includes a set of executive functions (the abilities that help you get things done), which includes abilities such as an individual’s flexibility, insight into other peoples’ worlds, decision-making, emotional self-regulation and inhibition (2006).

Work and Cognitive Function

Given that we use cognitive function the entire time we are awake, it’s no surprise that it plays a critical role in our abilities at work. We need the mental processes involved in cognitive function to complete tasks, make decisions and adapt to our work environment and the duties that come with it. When these mental process are jeopardized, it negatively impacts our productivity and ability to do our best work (Virtanen et al., 2009). One of the detriments to cognitive function is working long hours. Research has shown that individuals who work over 55 hours a week scored lower on tests of cognitive function than individuals who worked 35-40 hours a week (2009). More specifically, those who worked more scored significantly lower in areas of vocabulary and reasoning skills. It was also noted that individuals who worked more tended to have more psychological stress, a decrease in sleep and higher alcohol use – all of which ultimately lead to lower productivity levels (2009). With that being said, it’s important to note that even though an employee may feel as though they are doing a good thing by working extra hours, it may actually be better to work fewer hours and be at highest productivity levels during those hours.

Improving Cognitive Function for Employees

It is part of the life cycle – eventually our cognitive function inevitably begins to decline with age. The one that is usually first thought of is memory – but other abilities, such as reasoning skills, problem solving and information processing decline over time as well. Sometimes the reason for decline is simply aging, or perhaps you don’t use certain cognitive functions as frequently as others, so they decline from lack of use. There is no guaranteed way to prevent eventual cognitive decline, but employees can slow down the process and even improve cognitive function in some instances. Some tips to improve cognitive function include:

  • Read educational material or watch educational TV – actually engage and attempt to convert important or interesting facts to memory
  • Solve puzzles or brain teasers, play board and card games – this is useful for using parts of cognitive function you may not use on a day to day basis, such as reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • Exercise regularly – get up and go out for a walk on your lunch break with your co-workers
  • Attempt to reduce stress with relaxation techniques and self-care behaviours
  • Attend workshops and classes – try to learn something new (Kravetz, 2013).
  • Have a functional cognitive assessment completed by an occupational therapist to get an accurate measure of personal strengths and weaknesses – as well as advice to improve weaker areas of cognitive function

Having a conscious awareness of cognitive function is helpful as well – being aware of their abilities can assist an individual in knowing what kind of work they are good at and where they need improvement. As well, knowing capabilities allows a person to measure if decline or increase in abilities occurs, allowing for early intervention strategies to assist an employee in the workplace, or catch the onset of a potentially more serious health condition (Michelon, 2006).

Cognitive Decline – What Employers Should Know

Cognitive decline is a regular occurrence and usually occurs for four reasons (Fleck, 2015):

  1. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – causes slight but measurable decline in memory, language, thinking and judgment – it does not typically impact work life too greatly as most declines can be address through accommodation, however it is unknown if MCI is completely due to increased age or if it is an indicator of future Alzheimer’s
  2. Underlying health condition – decline may be due to a vitamin deficiency, hypothyroidism, depression, etc.
  3. Vascular Dementia – caused by a stroke and other blockages of blood flow to the brain – it often results in poor judgment, difficulty planning and organizing, as well as making decisions
  4. Alzheimer’s Disease – typically occurs in individuals ages 65+, however there is early onset Alzheimer’s which can occur in people in their 40’s and older – it is a progressive deterioration of mental capacities and often results in severe memory impairment

As an employer, if you start to notice changes in an employee’s functional abilities due to a cognitive decline, it’s important to have a safety assessment completed to ensure the employee is not a danger to themselves or others in the workplace. It is also noted that cognitive function is impaired for individuals who work shift-work – over time, individuals who have rotating shifts, long hours and work overnights tend to have a decline in their cognitive abilities (Brooks, 2014). Shift-work cognitive decline usually results in employees paying less attention to detail, having poorer memory, poorer problem-solving skills and planning. This damage is reversible as decline is typically due to fatigue and exhaustion, however it can take up to five years following the end of shift work for an employee to fully recover (2014). Some tips an employer can follow in the event of cognitive decline include:

  • Provide simple strategies such as checklists, cuing, provision of noise cancelling headsets to reduce environmental distractions, provision of steps and sequences with flowcharts
  • Get a cognitive assessment of the employee’s cognitive ability to compare to your cognitive demands analysis so that you can customize the strategies and allow the employee to stay productive
  • If employees are shift workers, provide regular health checks that include mental performance assessments (2014)
  • Hire an occupational therapist to do an ergonomic or accommodation assessment to provide insight to safety concerns and to assist with accommodating employees with their different abilities
  • Engage employees in trying new learning techniques and different skills
  • Keep thorough records of employees’ abilities to ensure accurate measure of decline should it occur (Fleck, 2015)
  • Work with your employees – give tasks that adhere to an employees’ strengths while providing resources to expand less developed skills (Mayhew)

An occupational therapist from Gowan Consulting can provide an employee with accommodations following cognitive decline to assist in the workplace. Accommodations play to an employee’s strengths and allow them to reach ultimate productivity. A Functional Cognitive Assessment (BrainFX) is a thorough assessment that results in a detailed report that highlights an employee’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Following the report, the occupational therapist can provide resources, tools and skills that will assist the employee with increasing their abilities where they don’t necessarily excel.

Contact us for more information on the services we provide and how we can work with you for your healthy business!


Works Cited

Brooks, M. (2014, Nov 7). Shift-work Impairs Cognitive Function. Medscape. Retrieved from

Fleck, C. (2015, Sept 3). Coping with Cognitive Declines at Work. HR Magazine. Retrieved from

Kravetz, D. (2013, July 2). 10 Ways to Boost Your Cognitive Fitness & Longevity. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Mayhew, R. (no date). Importance of Cognitive Skills in HR. Small Business-Chron. Retrieved from

Michelon, P. (2006, Dec 18). What are Cognitive Abilities and Skills, and How to Boost Them. Sharp Brains. Retrieved from

Virtanen, M., Singh-Manoux, A., Ferrie, J.E., Gimeno, D., Marmot, M.G., Elovainio, M., Jokela, M., Vahtera, J., & Kivimaki, M. (2009, June 29). Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Study. American Journal of Epidemiology. Retrieved from

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