InScope: How I have learnt to reduce cognitive load and avoid burnout

Caitlin Schmidt, Account Director for OMD Sydney, sets and leads the implementation process for her client’s campaigns, helping to deliver on business objectives.

Last year, I joined more than 1,500 of my peers at the inaugural MFA Effectiveness expo in Sydney.  The event was established to ensure that we, as agencies, are educated on best-practice standards so we can continue to produce award winning work for our clients. The day covered a range of topics affecting our industry; however, it was the focus on workplace culture, mental health and overall wellbeing which really resonated with myself and many of the attendees.

A dispiriting statistic was shared, which set the tone for several sessions: the Australian media and marketing industry is at a 37% churn rate which is higher than any other industry in this market. A key factor uncovered was cognitive load, as it is a contributor to burnout and is typically increased when the demand placed on working memory makes the task of processing information more complex than it needs to be.

Attending the MFA Ex event sparked me to think about how, as an industry, we can work together to create healthy work environments for our people.

In June 2019, the World Health Organisation updated the definition of burnout to “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” A term that is all too familiar within our industry, symptoms include energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling negative toward one’s career, and reduced professional productivity.

It is imperative that we avoid burnout to allow fundamental human attributes around mindset, motivation and attitude (including self-awareness and self-confidence) to thrive. As it is, these attributes which are the foundation of having greater control over our behaviour and success in the workplace. Churn has always been a problem in the media industry, but we are now at place where, fortunately, society and employers are placing a heavier emphasis on holistic health. But while eating healthy, staying mentally and physically fit, drinking less alcohol and getting good sleep are all important factors to providing balance and allowing our fundamental attributes to thrive, maintaining this lifestyle on a day-to-day basis is not always a reality.

This year marks my thirteenth year working in media and my third working in the Australian market following ten years in New York. My time in media has been filled with many highs and lows, which have taught me that regardless of external factors, we are all in control of helping ourselves manage cognitive load to prevent burnout. By harnessing this power, we are ultimately enabled to be better humans in both our personal and professional lives.

In short, here are my key tips to reduce cognitive load and avoid burnout:

Schedule a break: literally block-off time in your calendar each day where no one can schedule a meeting or come chat to you. Spend time at least once a week working away from your desk like going to a break-out area or a coffee shop. If available to you, arrange flexible hours with your manager so you can work outside of the office. It is amazing how time away from your desk can change your attitude and increase your efficiency.

Make it simple: break tasks up so they are more manageable. View them as bite size rather than daunting and big. Simplifying the task will make it less complex than it may initially appear.

Figure out what time of day you work best: plan your work around this timeframe. I work best in the morning. By 5pm, I know that my brain isn’t always working to its full capacity, so I make an effort to come in earlier in the mornings, in order to accomplish the most cognitive-focused tasks of the day.

Know what inspires you and do more of that: most of us will spend a third of our lives at work so we need to make the most of it. Never stop learning. There is always room to stretch your brain and grow.

Make time to get up and move around: lunchtime workouts are not a reality for everyone. Force yourself to get up from your desk from time-to-time for tea or water or go for a walk outside. The blood flow will energise you.

Find a workplace that celebrates a healthy work life balance: I am lucky enough to have avoided burn out during my time at OMD, as I take advantage of the agency’s flexibility policy and have incredibly supportive managers who allow me to speak openly about any potential issues (both professionally and personally).

And finally, shift your perspective: instead of viewing your workload or work environment as negative or working against you, view it from an objective point of view. See it from a positive light and your mood and experience will shift. Take a second to pause before reacting to a bad email or negative comment and treat others with respect and professionalism. Be grateful for what we do and the achievements we accomplish together. When you take a step back you will realise that we work in an exciting an ever-evolving industry, one that allows us to constantly challenge ourselves and grow.

All of us are dealing with things that our colleagues are unaware of. If you are going through something and need support, seek out someone you can have an honest conversation with whether it be a manager, peer, mentor or an EAP service.

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