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Managers may fail to see invisible stresses of home workers, says report

Managers in the increasingly digital, knowledge-fuelled and hybrid working environment may not be able to see the “invisible” strains on workers juggling home life and their workloads.

That’s according to a report by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), which says employers need to be more aware of factors that could impact mental workload and do more to understand and mitigate the factors.

Working with The Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMa), AWA researchers studied 28 recent primary studies on mental workload, plus two meta-analyses, to gain a picture of how knowledge-based workers handle the demands on their mental capacity. Taking the research findings and combining them with practical experience, AWA concluded that:

  • In most organisations there is little understanding by leaders or workers of the way in which the brain works nor that productivity goes through peaks and troughs;
  • Many managers seem to have an expectation that people can do everything that is thrown at them with little acknowledgment of their capacity;
  • Additional workload can be generated instantly by a few easy keystrokes on a smart phone or PC, or by family members, friends, society and even governmental bodies;
  • The effect on an individual’s mental workload of multiple factors is cumulative – and can be exponential in nature. Even small load factors, when added together, lead to a significant decline in task performance and wellbeing;
  • Having too little load on one’s cognitive capacity leads to a reduction of performance and wellbeing similar to having too high a load;
  • In the digital, asynchronous world, much of the additional workload is invisible to leaders and colleagues as people work away from a central office for more of their time.

The study concluded that competing demands have an exponential impact on the brain’s performance which is potentially profound both for people’s mental wellbeing and the productivity of their organisations.

Therefore, awareness, management and mitigation of the factors that impact the mental workload of workers should be central to the culture of high performing organisations.

Andrew Mawson, Managing Director of AWA, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic brought a massive increase in working from home and employers are now widely adopting a more flexible approach to hybrid working, with employees working two, three, four or even five days a week at home. As a result, managers often cannot see the ‘invisible’ stresses remote workers face, so they are less able to adapt to them. Workplace stress was already on the increase pre-pandemic – add in increased digital working from home and it may be that managers of remote workers can only see the tip of the iceberg among the multiple demands on an employee’s mental capacity.”