My job is making me brain dead

Lack of job satisfaction can have a long-term effect on the brain. Be warned – it can affect memory and concentration later in life and lead to a decline in brain function. Your brain is like a muscle – it needs exercise!

My job

I’m lucky – I’ve never had a boring job, although the long drives and the hundred or so hours I spend sitting on aeroplanes each year represent the downside. Well, I suppose you can’t have everything.

But researchers at the College of Human Science at Florida State University, headed by Dr Joseph Grzywacz are concerned that having a dull job and a dirty working environment can have a long-term negative effect on the psychological well-being of employees.

Of course, we realised a long time ago that working in a dirty or noisy or dangerous workplace can have a detrimental effect on both physical and psychological health, but a close second look at how stimulating one’s work environment is has revealed the largest toll on brain health as people aged.

Dr Grzywacz and his team examined cognitive function data, gleaned in the main from questionnaires and interviews, from almost 5,000 working adults participating in the study. They examined people’s work environments and compared these with their ability to maintain and later use the information they had learned at work. They looked at their ability to complete tasks, manage time and pay attention.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found greater occupational complexity – that is, the more challenging the job – specifically, the learning of new skills and new challenges – resulted in stronger cognitive performance in people as they aged. These results were especially true in women.

Conversely, those with jobs that exposed them to a dirty working environment saw a cognitive decline over the years.

In addition to information about job satisfaction and working environments, participants were also asked about any memory problems they experienced. There were very definite indications of cognitive decline, adding weight to the argument that unused neurons will die if not exercised regularly.

One of the conclusions of the study, and perhaps the most important, was that designing jobs that ensure all workers have some decision-making ability may protect cognitive function later in life. Even minor changes to the work environment, for instance introducing carpets, plants, or art into the workplace could make a difference to employees later in life. This could also prove to be cost effective for companies as well.

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

A few years ago, researchers in Japan discovered that giving houseplants to elderly patients in care homes to look after increased their life spans. The idea that the simple act of nurturing a plant gave residents something more to live for was proved to be correct. Those residents who didn’t get a houseplant to look after passed away sooner than those who did.

Dr Craig Knight, an expert on the psychology of working environments at the University of Exeter has extended this idea to the workplace. His ‘test subjects’ were employees at three different companies in Finland. First, they were asked to work in a bleak, stripped-down office. Then, one group were allowed to choose plants to put around their desk, while a second group had their office ‘greened’ for them. Just a few plants had a strong effect on productivity, especially when workers were given the chance to control their own environment.

Sterile, minimalist work environments are depressing and offer no encouragement whatsoever to employee’s creativity, but putting plants close to workers’ desks encourages them to work harder, thus improving their performance and productivity – by almost a fifth! The presence of a little greenery also improves job satisfaction and wellbeing and makes workers feel happier.

Putting green foliage near desks also boosts intellectual performance. Plants give employees a feeling of autonomy, possibly because deep in our brains, it reminds us of being at one with nature. It is already accepted that people are happier living where there are trees and green spaces, rather than in the 60’s style concrete jungles responsible for hopelessness.

This study, and others like it, has important ramification for those suffering with depression. Adding greenery to homes does lift the mood. The problem with people suffering from depression is that their homes are often unkempt and untidy. Depressives get into a rut where tidying up and cleaning falls by the wayside. Giving people suffering from depression some houseplants to water and to look after engenders feelings of responsibility.

For many individuals, this could be the first step on the road to recovery.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All Rights Reserved.