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Feeling tired, pooped or just plain exhausted? Maybe your brain is trying to tell you something. Mental fatigue is a cognitive menace.

When we’re tired, it’s harder to concentrate, our speed of processing slows down, we make more mistakes and sometimes some terrible decisions. It makes us, (how can I say this nicely?) a bit crabby, and generally a bit ‘bleh’. All you want is a hasty exit to crawl home plonk down in front of the telly or disappear under the comfort of your doona.

But it’s only 10.30 am and the day is but young – how will you find the energy to get through your day, solve all those challenging problems and come up with some brilliant new ideas?

High-performance thinking starts with recognising our limits and then choosing to adhere to them. The problem is we’ve gotten used to attacking each day at full speed, thinking that is the only way we can create a reasonable inroad into everything that has to be done.

It’s time to press pause and look where we are headed.

Fatigue & Cognitive Health

When yet another senior executive or politician tenders their unexpected resignation citing “personal reasons” or “wanting to spend more time with the family”, it’s often an indicator that those limits were broached, and that the choice was made to keep on keeping on long after the closed sign was hung up on the best cognition door.

Positions of leadership place an additional burden of expectation, which can be self-inflicted because you want to get on and do whatever it takes to succeed. Sometimes others who see your potential and capability will demand their pound of flesh to ensure you deliver.

Open all hours is a concept best kept for convenience stores and petrol stations. Working with the brain in mind goes back to the basics of ensuring the hardware in our skull is set up for optimal health and fitness through engaging in those lifestyle choices of healthy nutrition, sufficient physical activity, quality uninterrupted sleep and time out to relax and recuperate. While physical and mental health matter, adding in cognitive health completes the triumvirate for complete wellbeing and enhanced performance.

How to prevent mental fatigue

Mental fatigue sets in when we adopt poor thinking or working practices that might suffice in an emergency but are not sustainable in the longer term.

In the working environment, it’s important to recognise our limits at the individual and collective level. This means planning sufficient downtime is a must to enable tired brains to refuel, refresh and re-energise.

It’s about instigating some brain breaks during the day – time out to uncouple from our focus and give the mighty subconscious the time it deserves to allow our imagination to soar, come up with new insights and reboot our conscious thinking system.

It’s about taking time out to differentiate between work and non-work. If all we ever do is work, work, work, it’s boring, counter-productive and exhausting meaning we have less energy to devote to those other aspects of our lives that give us pleasure and meaning.

It is no longer fashionable to talk about work-life balance so we pontificate about work-life integration or harmony (gimme a break!). I’m not worried though, because just like bell-bottom jeans and big hair, fashions have a tendency to reinvent themselves. Granting ourselves permission especially as the leader to not always be expected to get in early to play work catch up or stay late to complete work is a good way to start. What the culture dictates whether spoken or unspoken, is what leads behaviour.

Sweden, meanwhile, is continuing to broaden its adoption of the 6-hour working day following in the footsteps of Henry Ford. The concept of a shorter working day to boost workplace efficiency is not new. It was back on May 1st 1926 that Ford factory workers were given a 40-hour working week to increase productivity. It worked.

Whether this is the true ideal for the optimal operation of the human mind remains debatable. Who can say that because of all our new technology and gadgetry designed to make our lives easier that we should be looking at further reductions in our applied working time? That would some interesting research to undertake.

Err no; I’m not volunteering to do it.

Last but not least, plugging in time for regular vacations to take a complete break from work has shown that cutting the umbilical cord of telepressure (being attached to emails and our mobile phone) reduces stress levels, promotes creativity and revitalises attention. This is about taking regular vacations because let’s face it taking 2 weeks off every 18 months is grossly insufficient and any benefit gained from the short break is quickly lost. Have you booked your holidays for the next 12 months?

The question is, what is right for you, in your position, in your working environment?

What steps if any has your organisation made to ensure that working limits are monitored to keep brains safe from overwork and cognitive fatigue.

We simply cannot afford to waste human potential. It costs the individual, business and society as a whole and in the light of our current understanding about how the brain works, is a cost that should not be tolerated.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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