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What Does it Mean to be Mentally Fatigued?

Mental Fatigue and Engagement

There is no denying that life is hard work for many of us at the moment. Excessive job demands, the need to juggle work, education and home life, and mental worries about what the future holds all can wear us out both mentally and physically. But what does it mean to be mentally fatigued, and can we do anything to prevent it? Mental fatigue typically happens when you have been focusing on something that is mentally demanding for a sustained period of time. Maybe you’re having to work longer hours or fit the same amount of work into a shorter time period as you adjust to other care commitments, or perhaps you have to stay up late to finish off work in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed. In all instances, you are having to stay focused on your work for longer durations, in a more intense way, or at moments of your day when, in the past, you were maybe used to winding down or getting ready for bed.

What is the impact of mental fatigue?

Mental fatigue represents a psychobiological state that naturally fluctuates during the day, depending on what you are working on, as well as on your general physiological state. Still, it has broad implications for both your cognitive performance and your emotional health. For example, when people get mentally fatigued, they not only feel tired and lack energy, but they are also much more likely to make mistakes and have accidents. They also have slower reaction times when performing everyday tasks, which, in particular contexts such as driving, can have serious consequences.

Fatigue can also cause you to have lower cognitive control so you can find it more difficult to regulate your thoughts and feelings and to switch and adapt between tasks in response to changing situational demands. Also, when combined with chronic stress, mental fatigue can ultimately lead to burnout.

Mental engagement

But something you’ve probably also noticed when you are mentally fatigued is that you find it much more difficult to engage with the work you are meant to be doing. You find yourself drifting off more often – you are there in body, but not in mind. And with employee engagement being one of the critical factors for productivity and employee retention, having mentally fatigued employees can have severe consequences for organizations.

Some researchers have referred to fatigue as a stop-emotion that is there to prevent you from becoming too exhausted. And one way that the brain does this is by becoming disengaged in the task at hand. This disengagement manifests itself as an impairment in motivation, so you invest less effort in the task, you have a diminished attentional focus towards the task, and in turn, your performance decreases.

Overcoming mental fatigue

So what can you do about this? How can you stop your brain disengaging when you get fatigued, therefore allowing you to maintain your performance until you’ve completed the task, or at least got to a good stopping place?

Well, we know from other studies that task engagement depends on the amount of value that you give to the task you are working on. What is the reward or benefit that you are going to get out of doing it? And in a pure sense, there is a tradeoff between these benefits against the costs that you have to endure or give up to stay engaged and achieve your goal. When the benefits – either intrinsic ones such as enjoyment or satisfaction, or extrinsic ones such as money –  are higher than the perceived costs, then motivation and engagement increases. So it’s not unexpected that mental fatigue is more likely to occur in instances when the costs of engaging in a task exceed the predicted rewards or benefits.

In other words, increasing the rewards that come with engaging in a task when someone is mentally fatigued might be enough to shift their motivation in a positive direction and drive attention back to the task. In this way, you can compensate for the decline in engagement that comes with mental fatigue. It also explains why giving yourself a small reward close to the end of the day can give you the boost you need to get you through the final stretch when you need it most.

Synaptic Potential offers science-based solutions and strategies that support, shape and align your people development initiatives, workspace design and organisational policies. If you would like to find out more about how we can help you unlock the Whole Brain Potential™ of your leaders or managers and teams then please get in touch to start a conversation.

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