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Strategies for Improving Cognition in the Workplace

accommodation Feb 10, 2023
improving cognition in the workplace


Most of us associate cognition with knowing, and it is officially defined in the dictionary as conscious mental activities, which includes activities such as thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering. But what does that mean? Cognition refers to a faculty that humans use to process information, apply knowledge, and use conscious reasoning. We use it for everything we do as humans, from leisure activities like reading a magazine or watching a hockey game, to work tasks like operating a computer program or providing customer service.

Given that we use cognitive function the entire time we are awake, it’s no surprise that it plays a critical role in our abilities at work. We need the mental processes involved in cognitive function to complete tasks, make decisions, and adapt to our work environment and the duties that come with it. When these mental processes are jeopardized, it negatively impacts our productivity and ability to do our best work. 


Cognitive Difficulties in the Workplace

There are many different reasons why employees may struggle cognitively in the workplace:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (Concussion)
  • Acquired Brain Injury (Tumour)
  • Mental Health Conditions (Depression, Anxiety)
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • ADHD
  • Aging

Cognitive impairments are often described as “invisible impairments” due to the fact that they are not visually noticeable like physical impairments may be and can persist even if the employee appears to have recovered physically. This can make it more difficult for employers to notice or understand the employee’s performance difficulties because they look to be healthy.

Although the impairment may look invisible, the negative effects on performance and decreased productivity can be seen in the workplace when experiencing cognitive difficulties. Common effects of cognitive difficulties on performance may include: 

  • Decreased ability to plan and execute a process without structure or guidance
  • Short-term memory impairments, which could affect an employee's ability to remember and follow up on job tasks, remember critical information, and correct apply information
  • Auditory processing impairments, which could lead to misunderstanding instructions
  • Decreased attention, problem solving, and sequencing skills, which could lead to information being missed due to an inability to focus on work, distractions in the environment, and the inability to focus on more than one thing at a time
  • Working memory impairments, which may cause deficits in retaining and retrieving information during learning of new work tasks, therefore limiting development of the needed work skills
  • Increased anxiety over work-performance due to employees feeling they are scrutinized or recognizing that their work performance is not where it was previous to the cognitive decline


Cognitive Strategies

As an employer, if you start to notice changes in an employee’s functional abilities due to a cognitive decline, it’s important to have a safety assessment completed to ensure the employee is not a danger to themselves or others in the workplace. Even without the presence of safety hazards, you will want to provide employees with accommodations that play to their strengths and allow them to reach ultimate productivity.

Here are some basic strategies employers and employees can use to help with cognitive decline:


For improving concentration:
  • Assign tasks in smaller segments
  • Keep notes or request written instructions
  • Provide checklists
  • Allow additional training time
  • Take short frequent breaks (rather than several longer breaks)
  • Noise cancelling headsets


For handling time pressures:
  • Create daily to-do lists
  • Divide large projects into smaller tasks/goals
  • Utilize electronic calendars and mobile phones
  • Meet at regular intervals with supervisor to establish realistic time-targets


For handling feedback:
  • Request feedback in writing, with the opportunity to discuss later
  • Request clarification on indicators of improvement
  • Ask for guidelines on performance indicators
  • Create written work agreements


For improving memory:
  • Write down important issues or interactions
  • Take minutes at meetings
  • Ask for instructions in writing
  • Use lists and daily to-do lists
  • Routine and structure can be helpful


For dealing with stress and emotions:
  • Seek help from appropriate medical professionals
  • Consider awareness training for co-workers about how to effectively interact
  • Consider awareness training for all staff on mental illness
  • Mindfulness training for employees


Functional Cognitive Assessments

Due to the invisible nature of cognitive impairment, it may be challenging to determine the appropriate accommodations for an employee to remain productive at work. Unless the employee has good insight into their strengths and limitations, it may be like playing a game of “trial and error” to find the right supports. Our Functional Cognitive Assessments can eliminate the guessing game. Our Occupational Therapists consider the individualized nature of workplace accommodation needs, especially in the context of cognitive impairment. These objective assessments are completed through a combination of:

  • Interview with the employee to determine functional limitations, medical diagnosis and perceived impact on workplace function
  • Interview of the manager to identify their perspective on the employee’s challenges, their workplace performance and behaviours
  • Review of the job demands and observation of the employee completing job tasks
  • Standardized and functional assessment of cognitive skills to determine strengths and limitations

The outcome of our assessments will provide you with valuable and data-driven accommodation recommendations to ensure that your employee can be as productive and safe as possible in the workplace. We may recommend employee tools and strategies specific to their job tasks, job coaching, environmental modifications, adjustment to their schedule or work structure to assist with performance. Contact us or make a referral to assist with your complex accommodation needs.


What Can Managers Do to Support Employee Cognition?

  • Determine indicators that may demonstrate that an employee is struggling with cognitive concerns (i.e., performance, lower productivity, presenteeism or absences, etc.)
  • Get a Functional Cognitive Assessment of the employee’s cognitive ability so you can customize strategies to allow the employee to stay productive.
  • Hire an Occupational Therapist to do an ergonomic or accommodation assessment to provide insight to safety concerns and to assist with accommodating employees with their different abilities.
  • Keep thorough records of employees’ abilities to ensure accurate measure of decline should it occur.
  • Work with your employees – give tasks that play to an employee’s strengths and provide resources to expand less developed skills.
  • Contact us for more information on the services we provide and how we can work with you for your healthy business!