Can stress at work affect cognitive performance?

17 April 2019

What is stress and why do we get it?

Stress is an emotional and physiological reaction to adverse events and demanding circumstances. A certain level of stress can be useful in order to stay alert and focussed. However, repeated exposure to stressful conditions can have a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health.
From an evolutionary perspective, the stress response allows us to respond to attack and other threats which were abundant in prehistoric times; like large, hungry predators roaming the plains. Whilst this highly conserved physiological and emotional reaction is essential for survival when confronted with a predator, it is less adaptive when confronted with a dizzying deluge of deadlines, emails and meetings.
The challenging nature of work, and the increasing pace of modern life, means that stress can easily tip over from being an important motivational mechanism into a maladaptive and inconvenient response. You may start feeling overwhelmed, nervous and on edge, and if stress is really building up, insomnia and headaches can prevent you from being at your best.

What impact does stress have on our bodies?

Under stressful conditions, the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis are activated (McEwen, 2007). This results in rapid release of glucocorticoids and other HPA axis hormones. Sympathetic nervous system activity and HPA axis hormones prepare the body for a fight or flight reaction: glucose and other metabolic resources become readily available, providing additional energy reserves; lung capacity and breathing rate increase, readying the body for action; and immune system activity heightens, in anticipation of potential threats.

How does stress affect our cognitive performance?

Elevated levels of anxiety at work and prolonged periods of stress can cause overuse of mediators that switch the stress response on and off (McEwen and Wingfield, 2003). This accumulation of stress is known as “allostatic load” and can adversely affect brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the caudate nucleus (Soares et al., 2012). High allostatic load is associated with depressive disorders (McEwen, 2003) and may present behaviourally as a state of enhanced vigilance, maintained or exacerbated by worry.

Atrophy of brain regions, resulting from repeated exposure to stressful conditions, has a cognitive cost. Indeed, working memory, attention, response inhibition and cognitive flexibility have all been found to be impaired by stress (Girotti et al., 2017). At work, impairments in these domains translate to a reduced ability to concentrate, control our impulses, remember and plan. One study found that when participants were given a stress test where they were asked to improvise a speech in front of an audience for 10 minutes, their ability to remember and plan was reduced after the test, compared to beforehand (Luethi et al., 2008). Thus, stress hindered their performance.

How does stress affect employees and employers?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have recently released its nineteenth annual survey, which details a number of crucial findings on stress in the workplace.

Over the last year, stress-related absences have increased in approximately two-fifths of organisations, with stress related conditions accounting for 54% of all long-term absences (CIPD, 2019). Of the organisations reporting an increase in stress related absences, over a third are not currently taking any steps to address the issue (CIPD, 2019). Typically, HR may carry out a one-off survey to assess stress; however, more frequent and detailed data collection is required to be able to assess the impact of any changes or interventions on employee wellbeing.

What can employers do to monitor and support their employees?

Given our growing understanding of the link between stress and cognition; monitoring cognitive function could provide objective insights into the impact of stress at work.

By tracking cognition over time, we can start to build a picture of how stress is affecting employees’ wellbeing and workplace productivity. Whilst not a diagnostic measure, the assessment of cognitive ability highlights potential areas of concern, which is a useful conversation starter for occupational health professionals. The result is targeted, early interventions for affected individuals.

CANTAB BrainHealth includes tasks that measure working memory, attention and impulsivity, all of which have been found to be impacted by stress (Girotti et al., 2017). With these objective measures of cognitive health, along with practical solutions for how to manage these types of difficulties in the workplace, CANTAB BrainHealth offers an innovative, objective and practical solution for employers wanting to be more proactive about stress in the workplace.

Interested in promoting wellbeing in your workplace?


Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development: CIPD. (2019). Health and Wellbeing at Work Report.

Girotti, M., Adler, S.M., Bulin, S.E., Fucich, E.A., Paredes, D., & Morilak, D.A. (2018). Prefrontal cortex executive processes affected by stress in health and disease. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 85:161-179.

Luethi, M., Meier, B., & Sandi, C. (2009). Stress effects on working memory, explicit memory, and implicit memory for neutral and emotional stimuli in healthy men. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2:5.

McEwen, B.S. (2003). Mood disorders and allostatic load. Biological Psychiatry, 54(3):200-207.

McEwen, B.S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain. Physiological Reviews, 87(3):873-904.

McEwen, B.S., & Wingfield, J.C. (2003). The concept of allostasis in biology and biomedicine. Hormones and Behavior, 43(1):2-15.

Soares, J.M., Sampaio, A., Ferreira, L.M.,et al.. (2012). Stress-induced changes in human decision-making are reversible. Translational Psychiatry, 2(7):e131.

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