How your workplace can harm your brain function

by L&D17 Jun 2016
Do you work in a dirty environment or suffer from a lack of stimulation in the workplace?

The consequence of doing either of those could be a negative cognitive effect on employees, according to  Joseph Grzywacz, the Norejane Hendrickson Professor of Family and Child Sciences and lead researcher of a new study.

In days gone by, researchers had been divided on whether it was working in an unclean workplace (facing exposure to mold, lead, loud noises, etc) or working in an unstimulating environment that took the biggest toll on brain health.

This new study is important because it indicates that both are significant in long-term cognitive well-being.

"Psychologists say that the brain is a muscle, while industrial hygienists point to chemicals in the work environment that may cause decline," said Grzywacz, 

"There are real things in the workplace that can shape cognitive function: some that you can see or touch, and others you can't. We showed that both matter to cognitive health in adulthood."

Grzywacz and his team obtained cognitive function data from working adults participating in the Midlife in the United States study.

The data included 4,963 adults aged between 32 to 84, and the sample was 47% male and 53% female.

There were two significant findings from the results.

The first was that greater occupational complexity (that is, the learning of new skills and taking on new challenges) resulted in stronger cognitive performance, particularly for women as they aged.

The second result was that men and women who had jobs that exposed them to a dirty working environment saw a cognitive decline.

Grzywacz said both of these are important when we think about the long-term health of men and women.

The researchers analysed the data to examine individuals' workplaces and their ability to maintain and later use information they learned.

They also looked at their executive functioning skills such as their ability to complete tasks, manage time and pay attention.

"The practical issue here is cognitive decline associated with aging and the thought of, 'if you don't use it, you lose it,'" Grzywacz said.

"Designing jobs to ensure that all workers have some decision making ability may protect cognitive function later in life, but it's also about cleaning up the workplace."

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