Updated: Apr 11
Do you ever feel like your employees are struggling to keep up with their workload? Are they often stressed and tired, putting in long hours? If so, it could be that the cognitive load of their job is contributing to burnout.
Cognitive load refers to the mental effort required to complete a task. When employees are asked to process large amounts of information or perform complex tasks, their cognitive load can quickly become overwhelming. This can lead to burnout, where employees become exhausted, disengaged, and less productive.
The knowledge economy requires workers to engage in complex mental tasks, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making, which can increase cognitive load compared to the repetitive, physical tasks of a production economy. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that cognitive load was higher in knowledge work than in manual labor jobs (1).
One factor that contributes to high cognitive load is context switching or multitasking. When employees switch frequently between tasks, their cognitive load increases, as they need to process new information and adjust to new tasks continually. This can make it difficult for employees to concentrate, stay focused, and complete tasks efficiently, leading to burnout.
Extrinsic load is another factor that can contribute to increased cognitive load. This refers to the mental effort required to process external stimuli, such as noise, distractions, and interruptions. In addition, tasks that require employees to work outside of their core skill set can also contribute to extrinsic load. For example, if an employee who is trained as a graphic designer is suddenly tasked with managing a complex project, they may experience high levels of extrinsic load as they try to process new information and perform unfamiliar tasks. This can quickly become overwhelming, making it difficult to concentrate and complete tasks efficiently, leading to burnout.
High cognitive load contributes to burn-out
Several studies have shown that high cognitive load, including context switching, can contribute to burnout. For example, a study of healthcare workers found that those who experienced high cognitive load were more likely to report burnout symptoms, such as emotional exhaustion and reduced job satisfaction. The study also found that the risk of burnout increased when healthcare workers had to switch frequently between tasks, had to prioritise competing demands, and had little control over their work environment (2).
Constant switching lowers performance
Another study of teachers found that high cognitive load, including context switching, was associated with lower job performance, increased absenteeism, and higher levels of stress and burnout. The study concluded that reducing cognitive load by simplifying tasks and providing training could help prevent burnout and improve job performance among teachers (3).
How to reduce cognitive load
So, what can you do to reduce the cognitive load of your employees and prevent burnout, including the negative effects of context switching? Get a simple five-point plan you can start to implement with your teams.
By reducing the cognitive load of your employees, including the negative effects of context switching, you can help prevent burnout and improve their overall job performance. As a leader, it’s essential you pay attention to the mental workload of your team and take steps to reduce it where possible. This can help create a healthier, happier, and more productive work environment for everyone involved.
 Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem-solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257-285. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4
 Shanafelt TD, Boone S, Tan L, et al. Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance among US physicians relative to the general US population. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(18):1377-1385. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3199
 Skaalvik EM, Skaalvik S. Teacher job satisfaction and motivation to leave the teaching profession: Relations with school context, feeling of belonging, and emotional exhaustion. Teach Teach Educ. 2017;63:196-205. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2016.12.015