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Mental fatigue at work – that’s just normal, right?

Well, no.

At work, mental fatigue has a similar effect to stress although for different reasons: for each of us, there is a level at which mental fatigue at work causes exhaustion because of fitful sleep (you tend to fall asleep quickly then lie awake), more frequent relationship problems (work, social and at home - because you are far less tolerant of others when you are mentally very tired) and increasing pressure at work (because you can’t get through work as quickly as normal).

The latest research (see New Scientist June 17-23, ‘The Fire Inside’) suggests mental fatigue can cause inflammation of nerves and muscles in our bodies, and a higher risk of minor health problems such as colds that linger on for weeks, and even major health problems like obesity and heart attacks.

Mental fatigue in some industries is a major cause of workplace accidents.

Not only that, but continuing to work whilst under mental fatigue, you will find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on and complete tasks to the required quality and time. Your workplace confidence and personal self-esteem will slip as your performance falls below your usual standards.

Simply stated, employers and employees alike, should be focussed on reducing mental fatigue at work.

What are some of the symptoms of mental fatigue and how do we keep it in check?

Key indicators of mental fatigue are -

  • Severe exhaustion – a tiredness that is constant and limiting, and it is persistent.

  • Taking much longer than you would normally take to do a task (perhaps because they have to re-work more than usual) and/or making uncharacteristic mistakes in doing a task.

  • For some people, they can only perform at their best when they are drinking or eating much higher level of stimulants (caffeine, chocolate, sugar) than is usual for them.

  • How we cope with mental fatigue boils down to whether we are conscious of it or not.

    Some simple ways to reduce mental fatigue + one golden rule

    If you notice your performance slipping, there are some simple things you can do to reduce mental fatigue: 

  • Go home: reducing your work hours will give your body and mind some rest from the workplace. To put it into perspective, being awake for 20 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.1. Blank out your diary in the late afternoon or come into the office later than usual, even if it’s for only a few hours a week, it all helps. Reducing your hours will also give you more time to do the other activities below.

  • Regular exercise usually helps reduce stress, but it may not help mental fatigue because what you want to do is not concentrate; so avoid team sports, and avoid any physical activity that requires a lot of thinking (like playing squash).

  • Doing something ‘mindless’ that gets us away from a computer or smart phone - like washing a car, or hanging out a load of washing – this may help but the key is to not concentrate on anything else but the task.

  • Do nothing: try to not read the news or check social media whilst walking to work; you can try sitting and drinking a coffee without checking emails.  

  • Listen to music or watch a relaxing TV show or sport can help.

  • Meditation will help relax the mind. Try it with or without the help of music, or use an app to help you focus. Here are five free apps to try!

  • The golden rule

    The golden rule is to do one or several of the above, frequently and for short periods of time (even five minutes at a time will help) during the day. We may have to be intentional about scheduling time to do this during busy days.

    How much of this sort of activity is needed to reduce mental fatigue?

    The short answer is ‘enough for our mental fatigue baseline to return to normal levels’. You will know when this happens because you will feel enthused and energetic about a task and you will find it relatively easy to do it on-time and to the level of quality that is usual for you.

    If you have tried these activities and they don’t seem to be working, there is also the option of professional coaching where a specific goal over a period of time is set to reduce levels of mental fatigue.

    Don’t let your mental fatigue get the better of you, there is a solution out there!

    Matt Featherstone has a degree in psychology (Macquarie University) and has taught and coached professional skills development for 17 years.

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