Blog Company Culture Why is isolation and lockdown so stressful?

Isolation is incredibly tiring when you are not used to it.


A multitude of extra, tiny decisions are taxing our brains.


There have been a number of interesting articles posted in The Conversation over the last couple of weeks that make for interesting reading. In particular, I was drawn to those articles about how Covid and lockdown are affecting peoples’ mental health. One article by Professor Ben Newell, a specialist in Cognitive Psychology at the University of NSW, made intriguing reading. So I wanted to share some of his comments and thoughts along with some of my own.


According to the research, all the extra tiny decisions that we have to now make every day are taking their toll.


Anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress are all affecting our sleep patterns and how tired we feel.


But we may be getting tired for other reasons too. All those micro-decisions we make every day are multiplying and taking their toll. Our bodies and our brains adapt to patterns and routines and turn cognitive behaviours into mechanical ones. It’s the way our brains cope with the multitude of relatively mundane and basic decisions that we have to make.


New decisions, due to the change in circumstances, such as; should I go for a walk? Is it safe to pop to the shop? Is it OK to wear my pyjamas in a Zoom meeting?


All of these kinds of decisions are in addition to the familiar, everyday ones, like what shall I have for breakfast? What shall I wear? Do I hassle the kids to brush their teeth?


So what’s going on?

According to Professor Newell, we are increasing our cognitive load

One way to think about these extra decisions we’re making in isolation is in terms of “cognitive load”. We are trying to think about too many things at once. But our brains can only cope with a finite amount of information.


Researchers have been looking into our limited capacity for cognition or attention for decades.


Early research described a “bottleneck” through which information passes. We are forced to attend selectively to a portion of all the information available to our senses at a given time.


These ideas grew into research on “working memory“: there are limits on the number of mental actions or operations we can carry out. Think of remembering a phone or bank account number. Most people find it very hard to remember more than a few at once.


Coronavirus isolation can be exhausting, and it can affect how we make decisions.


To measure the effects of cognitive load on decision-making, researchers vary the amount of information people are given, then look at the effects.


In one study, they asked participants to predict a sequence of simple events (whether a green or red square would appear at the top or bottom of a screen) while keeping track of a stream of numbers between the squares.


Think of this increase in cognitive load as a bit like trying to remember a phone number while compiling your shopping list.


When the cognitive load is not too great, people can successfully “divide and conquer” (by paying attention to one task first).


In one study, participants who had to learn the sequence and monitor the numbers made just as many successful predictions, on average, as those who only had to learn the sequence.


Presumably, they divided their attention between keeping track of the simple sequence and rehearsing the numbers.


More and more decisions take their toll

But when tasks become more taxing, decision making can start to deteriorate.


In another study, Swiss researchers used the monitoring task to examine the impact of cognitive load on risky choices. They asked participants to choose between pairs of gambles, such as:


  1. A) 42 per cent chance of £14 and 58 % chance of £85, or
  2. B) 8 per cent chance of £24 or 92 % chance of £44.


Participants made these choices while also keeping track of sequences of letters played to them via headphones.


The key finding was not that increasing cognitive load made people inherently more risk-seeking (tending to choose A) or risk-averse (B). It simply made them more inconsistent in their choices. Increased cognitive load made them switch.


It is a bit like choosing the fruit salad over the cake under normal circumstances, but switching to the cake when you are cognitively overloaded.


It is not because a higher cognitive load causes a genuine change in your preference for unhealthy food. Your decisions just get “noisier” or inconsistent when you have more on your mind.


‘To do two things at once is to do neither’

This proverbial wisdom (attributed to the Roman slave Publilius Syrus) rings true — with the caveat that we sometimes can do more than one thing if they are familiar, well-practised decisions.


But in the current context, there are many new decisions that we never thought we’d need to make. For example: Is it safe to walk in the park when it is busy?


This unfamiliar territory means we need to take the time to adapt and recognise our cognitive limitations.


Although it might seem as though all those tiny decisions are mounting up, it perhaps isn’t just their number. The root cause of this additional cognitive load could be the undercurrent of additional uncertainty surrounding these novel decisions.


For some, the pandemic has displaced a bunch of decisions (do I have time to get to the bus stop?). But the ones that have replaced them are tinged with the anxiety surrounding the ultimate cost that we, or family members, might pay if we make the wrong decision.


So, it is no wonder these new decisions are taking their toll.


So what can I do?

Unless you have had ample experience with the situation or the tasks you are trying to do are simple, then adding load is likely to lead to poorer, inconsistent or “noisier” decisions.


The pandemic has thrown us into highly unfamiliar territory, with a raft of new, emotionally tinged decisions to face.


The simple advice is to recognise this new complexity, and not feel you have to do everything at once. And “divide and conquer” by separating your decisions and giving each one the attention it — and you — deserve.


This post was heavily influenced and used extracts taken from an article originally written by Ben Newell, a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of NSW, that appeared in The Conversation.

Mark Stephens

May 13, 2020

Mark has worked in and researched the HR & Recruitment landscape for over 20 years. His key focuses are how recruitment technology, evidence-based processes, and human behavioural science can be used to optimise recruitment performance. He is a serial entrepreneur, previous winner of the prestigious Chambers of Commerce 'Innovation in Business' award, and founder of Smart Recruit Online Ltd, and Corporate Wellness & Mental Health UK Ltd (Corpwell).

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