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Cognitive Overload: Definition, Causes and Solutions for Employees

Think about the last time an answer sat on the tip of your tongue. Deep down, you knew the right response.

But you couldn’t produce it on command, perhaps due to stress, fatigue, stage fright or — to lean on Nirvana — “something in the way.”

That “something” is cognitive overload. And while it’s annoying at trivia night, it’s paralyzing at work.

How do HR pros like you protect employee well-being and support workers through increasing workloads? Let’s examine what cognitive overload means, its causes and practical ways to help your people overcome it.

What is cognitive overload?

We experience cognitive overload — a state of mental exhaustion — when demands exceed our working memory’s capacity. Think of working memory as a data cache or temp files on a computer. It holds, manages and manipulates info temporarily while we perform cognitive tasks like:

  • reading
  • writing
  • problem-solving
  • strategic planning
  • creative thinking

Not every train of thought leads to cognitive overload. Certain factors allow us to recall something important in one setting … and block us elsewhere.

What causes cognitive overload?

The root cause of cognitive overload is an excessive number of demands placed on our working memory. It isn’t about a lack of knowledge, but the inability to immediately retrieve it. At work, employees could experience it while they manage:

  • tasks
  • projects
  • training
  • responsibilities
  • legal requirements
  • clients or customers

No one source serves as a trigger. External stimulation can fuel cognitive overload, such as music blaring in a park while you’re trying to read. It can occur internally, too, like when you try to recall an obscure fact regarding the subject of your college thesis.

Those who work in fast-paced and high-pressure settings may regularly face it. Health care workers, emergency responders and customer service representatives must respond to challenges quickly — sometimes with lives on the line.

Employees also might encounter cognitive overload while learning something new or navigating unfamiliar technology. True, tools and software make our lives easier, but overabundant tech poses its own issues. In fact, over 2 in 3 employees said they waste an hour each day switching between apps, according to a CITE Research survey on behalf of business communications provider RingCentral.

Outdated software amplifies the problem. C-suite and HR pros said members of their workforce miss important deadlines about five times a month due to a tech mishap, according to a July 2023 OnePoll survey commissioned by Paycom.

It feels like a paradox that the resources we use to simplify our lives unintentionally complicate them. But that outcome isn’t inevitable. When finding the right tech, functionality should never outweigh ease of use.

What are the signs of cognitive overload?

It can strike employees immediately or slowly, eroding engagement over time. Regardless, look out for these five behaviors as you build a strategy to minimize cognitive overload.

1. Low concentration

A heavy load on employees’ working memories can make it hard for them to focus. Worn out by the week, workers might experience exhaustion on their final shift before the weekend.

Low concentration also might come from a request or assignment with too much context. This makes it hard to decide which details matter, draining our attention.

2. Decreased productivity

We tend to avoid what overwhelms us. When we face a continually rising mountain of urgent tasks, it can be hard to recognize our progress. Employees struggling with cognitive overload may complete requests slowly — or avoid them outright.

3. Poor decision making

On the other hand, cognitive overload may push us to work faster, but with less concern. Employees could feel inclined to just get a task over with, believing any output is better than nothing.

However, when the right choice is key, the wrong decision often creates more work on the back end. In this way, cognitive overload blinds us to consequences.

4. Accelerated burnout

As our brains try to work through cognitive overload, it can seem like we’re doing less externally. Remember, processing excessive information takes effort; doing it excessively can lead to exhaustion and, ultimately, burnout.

5. Higher stress

It’s not complicated: When we feel overwhelmed, we get stressed. Cognitive overload pushes us into a corner. With nowhere to go, our mental well-being pays the cost. Even successfully processing information can propel a gradual wave of stress. Unchecked, it might lead to burnout, disengagement and even turnover.

How do employers minimize cognitive overload?

Every employee processes the phenomenon differently. That doesn’t mean businesses can’t address the sources and limit their effect. Here are six practical ways employers can help their people overcome cognitive overload.

1. Streamline employees’ data access

Depending on their role, employees parse a lot of info in their roles. Simplifying access to their personal data helps alleviate this burden. Most employers get this, given 80% prioritize up-to-date and easy-to-use HR tech, according to a January 2022 OnePoll survey commissioned by Paycom.

Some platforms expect employees to use separate apps — each with their own login and password — just to manage:

  • PTO
  • time and attendance
  • benefits
  • payroll
  • development
  • performance reviews
  • and more

Truly single HR software gives employees access to everything they need to manage their work lives in one convenient place. Because every tool within the software communicates seamlessly, your people don’t have to master different tools or needlessly reenter data.

Managers experience cognitive overload, too. Adopt an easy-to-use management tool to help them quickly complete supervisory tasks anywhere, such as:

  • approving PTO requests
  • checking and confirming schedules
  • reviewing applications
  • supplying feedback
  • creating and approving personnel action forms

2. Eliminate unnecessary stressors

When payroll issues compound employees’ financial stress, it negatively impacts their life outside of work. By eliminating payroll errors and the consequences that come with them, you protect employees from unneeded stress and anxiety.

Paycom’s employee-guided payroll, for example, leads employees to resolve errors before submission and before they cause undue stress.

3. Invest in employee wellness

You might not be able to stop your industry’s stressors, but you can help employees manage them. Research wide-reaching and unconventional benefits that champion holistic wellness, like:

  • mental and physical health coverage
  • family-forming benefits
  • financial wellness programs
  • charitable involvement
  • and more

Don’t forget to make your offerings accessible as you expand them. The right benefits administration software makes it easy for employees to understand their options so they can choose the plans that meet their needs.

4. Promote microlearning

Ample development opportunities can give employees a reprieve from tasks that propel cognitive overload. Be careful not to overwhelm them with four-hour compliance courses and other potentially stress-inducing material.

Scalable learning management software lets you easily build and deliver smaller, bite-sized training accessible from anywhere, 24/7. This way, employees gain knowledge without the burden of extensive sessions.

5. Manage time

Monitor how much time employees spend on certain tasks and calculate the time it takes. Don’t assume an average for all tasks. Exceptions will arise, but understanding the common assignments helps you build space around those outliers.

As you search for HR software to help address cognitive overload, make sure the provider you consider includes a tool for automatic measurement of employees’ usage. If cognitive overload runs high in your company, a resource like this helps you identify where your investment can lighten employees’ loads.

6. Encourage regular breaks

It seems simple, but sometimes diffusing cognitive overload just takes stepping away for a few minutes. Normalize breaks within your organization, and offer outlets for exercise and relaxation. This gives employees a chance to breathe, reset and return to work more effectively.

We want to be exceptional at what we do. And we absolutely can. Cognitive overload doesn’t mean we can’t handle what’s expected of us. It’s simply a reminder that we have a lot going on. These steps help protect, nurture and — given enough time — enhance our capabilities.

Explore Paycom’s single software to see how it helps your people manage and overcome cognitive overload.


DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.