Cognitive Overload, Work Demands and the Pandemic

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

What is it?

Cognitive Overload was first identified by educational psychologist Prof John Sweller in 1988. Cognitive load theory considers the volume of information that working memory can hold at one time – naturally enough, for all humans there is a limit. Trying to remember a significant number of things at once can be stressful at any time, but did you know that cognitively straining conditions such as disruptions, interruptions, and information overload are related to impaired task performance and diminished well-being at work?

How does it affect us?

The Irish Independent published an article in December 2020 with the opening line – “If you’re finding it hard to focus, remember things or make decisions at work, relax, you’re not losing the plot. More than likely you are suffering from pandemic-induced brain fatigue which makes it difficult to think straight”. Pandemic-induced ‘brain fog’ is result of cognitive overload (

To use their words - There has been a tsunami of information and conflicting advice to sift through while trying to keep work and domestic life ticking over. Naturally, this information overload has an impact on our ability to concentrate. The BBC says that the pandemic has robbed us of our ability to do things on auto pilot. We must place additional focus on even the simplest of tasks. For example, where employees used to turn up to a meeting in a boardroom, they now need to fire up your video-conferencing software, worry about your WiFi, adjust your communication to the time lag and so forth. All of these changes require additional concentration, and organically drain energy.

The BBC explain that routines have been disrupted and that we have been forced to quickly adapt, with the major consequence being a state of mental fatigue. They further suggest that, since the onset of Covid in particular, it feels hard to concentrate for any length of time, as if we’re in a collective state of near-constant distraction. Throw in the additional distractions, such as kid