How to Manage Your Team’s Cognitive Stress

Strategic Security
employee stress management and team wellness

​​​​​​​​Illustration By: Gordon Studer

Under Pressure: Managing Team Wellness
 
​"How can I keep my overburdened team from cracking up?" The question has increasing relevancy for security managers in the contemporary business world. Continually bombarded with information, these managers also face a growing number of security threats. The collective effect can be serious stress overload. 


​Science shows us that stress can have a marked effect on performance. The study of how stress affects human physiology is extensive, and much of this work allows for better ways of understanding behavior. 

Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson observed the empirical relationship between arousal and performance over 100 years ago. The relationship they identified (coined the Yerkes-Dodson curve) was that stress can create sharpened senses and readiness—both positive effects—but if arousal becomes too intense, a tipping point is reached and performance begins to deteriorate.

More recently, in 1994 neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky wrote Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, an acclaimed contribution to lay understanding of the effects of chronic stress on bodies and brains. Sapolsky explained how chronic stress wreaks havoc on our bodies, increasing vulnerability to metabolic disorders, cardiac disease, and depression. Although a bit of stress can enhance performance, clearly the health effects of chronic stress are bad. 

We should also be aware of how acute stress affects the brain. In 2009, scientist Vicki LeBlanc conducted a literature review of effects of acute stress on performance and its implications for medical professionals. “Elevated stress levels,” she found, “can impede performance on tasks that require divided attention, working memory, retrieval of information from memory, and decision making.” Ironically, we often rely on our workers to possess full acuity in these areas during a stressful event. 

What can we do to mitigate the effects of a chronically stressful job on our teams? And how can we adjust our expectations of their cognitive function in stressful times?

​Warning: Wide (Cognitive) Load

Multitasking is a myth. One may believe he or she is multitasking under the commonly understood definition of simultaneous task achievement. In actuality, this is simply switching back and forth between cognitive tasks at a furious pace. Human brains cannot conduct two conscious tasks simultaneously, however much we love to believe that they can.

Each time you switch from one task to another, you experience a cognitive lag that may last a quarter of a second or more. That lag time may not seem like a lot, but it adds up. With each switch, your ability to make critical decisions is diminished. This functionality only deteriorates when more tasks are added to your cognitive plate. This is especially problematic when speed and accuracy are at a premium. As cognitive neuroscientist Earl Miller once said, “People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves.” 

So how should a manager proceed? Begin with the acceptance that giving individuals many different types of information to process or different tasks to accomplish in virtually the same time frame will result in more lag time and errors. The situation only gets worse when managers emphasize a list of tasks that must be accomplished without offering a clear order of prioritization or preference. In low-stress times, employees are reasonably likely to manage multiple tasks well. But during a crisis, cognitive capacity decreases with the physiological stress response. 

Instead, managers can attack the problem head-on by first educating employees on how multitasking depletes cognitive focus and crisp decision making. Managers can also create blocks of time for team members to focus on specific tasks and types of information, and enable teams to schedule their time in more efficient ways. Moreover, creating visual process maps, decision trees, swim lane diagrams, and checklists can effectively eliminate cognitive load during high-stress incidents that are sure to tax brain power. 

Consider emergency response and continuity plans. Often, these documents are text-heavy and laden with detailed and frequently extraneous information. However, when we understand the pressures on the cognitive brain during a crisis, it makes sense to streamline such instructions as much as possible. Thus, employees should have a clear order of operations, a visual tool for moving through the decision-making process, and differentiated roles so that one person isn’t responsible for multiple simultaneous tasks. 

We used this approach at my workplace at Temple University, with favorable results. We switched out dense continuity plans for quick operational manuals that enable a more seamless continuity of operations, regardless of whatever disruption occurs.

Overall, the more we can eliminate expectations of multitasking during a crisis, the faster the response will be, and the fewer the errors. 

The Dangers of Deprivation

Sleep is magnificent—and essential—especially in a field like security. So why is sleepiness and burning the candle at both ends the norm in many workplaces, and sometimes even celebrated? 

When employees do not get optimum levels of sleep, it compromises their immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness. Their memories are hampered; it is harder for them to recall appropriate procedures. Sleep-deprived people also have an impaired ability to react to insulin; they are hungrier and at higher risk of chronic disease. 

In a 2012 clinical study conducted in South Korea, researchers validated the profoundly negative effects of sleep deprivation on executive function and attention. The study also found a link between sleep deprivation and increases in stress hormones, blood glucose, and inflammation. Conversely, while there are legitimate claims that oversleep can make us sluggish, very few employees are devoting that much time to sleep to reach those extreme levels. 

To support the right balance, managers can emphasize that an appropriate amount of sleep will make team members sharper, less irritable, and more effective. Whether they present it in terms of tactical acuity, operational effectiveness, work–life balance, or self-care, managers should do what they can to make sure team members aren't showing up to work exhausted and compromised. One key way to do this is to consistently support an organizational culture that encourages rest. 

For example, a young first responder recently remarked to me that to get a task done she would just stay up all night until it was complete. I countered that losing sleep was, in fact, the worst of all of her options, because she needed to be cognitively sharp and ready the next morning. As an alternative, we enlisted the help of other colleagues outside of our unit to ensure that all the necessary work was completed that afternoon. 

If managers are clear in their message about the harmful limitations of deficient sleep, they will set an expectation that optimum performance requires sufficient rest, and team members will begin to internalize and prioritize that view.

​Duty of Team Care 

Some teams are in a constant state of overwork and intense activity. A colleague recently told me that her team is subject to relentless and unmitigated pressure and high-stress assignments. This has created a revolving-door-like turnover, as staff seek employment elsewhere that will provide a more balanced workflow.

Savvy managers understand that they may need to protect their teams by providing opportunities to wind down operations a bit after periods of intense activity. Some give team members an opportunity to work on projects they enjoy, without brutal deadlines. This helps team members regain a sense of work balance before a new high-intensity period arrives.

I recently faced a related dilemma in my current role. We undertook an unexpected response to an infectious disease outbreak at our institution that required full-team activation and high-intensity performance. To get the job done, team members had to stay late and report early, and the multiple-day mass vaccination clinic operation required steady alertness and continuous activity.

It was an exhausting operation for the team. And when it ended, there was little opportunity for pulling back; the team had to keep up a high tempo in preparation for a planned functional exercise in two weeks’ time. 

I asked my team to maintain intensity for these two weeks so we could have a successful exercise operation with the promise of a pulling-back period and team-focused rejuvenation afterward. I drove home this promise in a team meeting by planning a group lunch outing, as well as some easy activities, for the weeks immediately following the exercise operation. I made it clear that this would enable everyone to refresh, pull back a little bit, and become more mentally ready for the next period of intensity. Knowing this break waited for them in the near future helped everyone stretch their performance for a few more weeks. 

Some teams are so understaffed that the members feel they will never have the bandwidth for this type of recalibration. Successful leaders ensure that their teams are protected from overwork; it is part of the duty of care of any manager. Sometimes, that requires tough conversations between the manager and his or her supervising executive. If a manager does not protect his or her team members, they will leave the operation. Or worse, they will end up burned out. 

​Creative Rejuvenation 

When Nassim Taleb wrote The Black Swan in 2007, he illustrated that many of the worst events that occur are improbable and unpredictable. Black swan events, in his telling, included situations such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008. This raises a question: how do we prepare for unexpected—and even unimagined—possibilities? 

Cognitive research on performance and stress has found that the degrading effects of high levels of stress are particularly acute when situations are novel, unpredictable, or not controllable by the individual. Thus, practicing for rare and improbable scenarios may be a way to increase comfort with the unfamiliar, to remain open to the possibility of improbable events, and to even provide rare opportunities for innovative problem solving. Not only is this a way of partially inoculating the team against the negative impact of novel circumstances, but it also provides an avenue for fresh approaches and different perspectives on potential hazards. 

The ideal option, then, may be to exercise creatively and often, with simulations of various imaginative black swan events. Some might say that exercising unexpected scenarios may decrease the team’s sense of realism. In my view, the bigger hazard is the repeated practice of running through the same typical scenarios, which makes exercising seem stale and rote. Innovation occurs when curiosity is encouraged and nothing is off the table. Creativity is rejuvenating, and it leads to the identification of new problems and new solutions. In that way, creativity can be the “secret sauce” to successful teams.

A second benefit of preparing for black swan events is that it builds team resilience. Taleb’s adjectival term for resilience is “anti-fragile,” or the quality of being able to adapt to the sometimes catastrophic curveballs that life throws your way. Being resilient means being easily able to adapt to change, a critical attribute for any team. 

In 2011, Japan experienced an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear reactor meltdown in quick succession. No one had predicted this devastating cascade. In that case, like any black swan event, success of recovery depended upon the resilience and agility of the people managing the event to adapt, be flexible, and swiftly move to a new normal. It is those people who we need to prepare. 

​Be a Vacation Votary

Employers seek out a laundry list of desired traits and talents when hiring employees. But in return, employers need to consider what they are obligated to provide their workers. Employers need to integrate companywide strategies to protect employees from undue cognitive stress and enable workers to reach peak performance. The latter has a parallel benefit: achieving peak employee performance helps the organization outshine its competition.

Operational psychology has told us from its inception that if you understand the machinations of the human brain, you can capitalize on its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. Thus, employers may use findings from clinical, psychological, sociological, and cognitive science to help maximize the team’s tactical and operational value. Employers owe these healthful and reenergizing practices to their employees, and they ultimately bring value to the organization’s mission at the same time.

These science-supported practices are especially important in the contemporary workplace. In some organizations, the sheer volume of workload placed on workers makes taking a full week or two off nearly impossible. In fact, some employees say they don’t go on vacation because the workload upon return is simply too stressful. Others don’t go because they believe no one else is trained in their specific tasks. Some employees are even punished—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—if they take vacation. For instance, in minds of their supervisors, these employees might be branded as insufficiently dedicated, and this judgment can influence overall performance evaluations and promotion opportunities.

According to a recent study cited in the Harvard Business Review, 52 percent of U.S. workers left some vacation time unused. Forty percent of male workers and 46 percent of female workers said that just thinking about the piled-up work awaiting them upon return was a major reason why they had not used up their vacation days.

Like sleep, vacations are essential for workers, especially ones in higher-

stress security positions. Getting away from sources of anxiety and stress that vacations provide has many positive benefits. It’s up to managers to ensure their organizational culture is pro-vacation. Sometimes, this is trickier than it sounds. 

In a 2018 study, Project Time Off, researcher Katie Denis points out that many workers don’t hear about vacation time from their employers, nor are they encouraged to use it. This silence, in and of itself, can create trepidation about taking time off.

How can managers encourage employees to use vacation time? First, they should model good behavior by making sure that they take vacation time themselves. Adequate personnel that can fill in for the vacationing manager in all but the most extreme cases should be in place, as should supportive procedures for fill-ins. 

Second, managers should educate teams about the researched benefits of time off. Regular vacations can be a key source of positive thinking, and in a 2010 study, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that when the brain thinks positively, productivity improves by 31 percent, sales by 37 percent, and creativity and revenues explode.

However, a more recent APA study in 2018 left us with a cautionary note: employers cannot expect the occasional vacation to solve all stress issues. The benefits of vacation are only meaningful when they are one component in a broader culture of ongoing stress management. 

​Don’t Be Blind to Science

Research shows that there are limitations to our brain's cognitive capacity, and teams deserve managers who are able to put this knowledge into practice. 

Nonetheless, some organizational cultures still work against that knowledge. Vacation shaming, mandated multitasking under pressure, rewards for workers who work the most extreme hours, and other such management practices found in these cultures are counterproductive and shortsighted, and they increase the risk of burn out. 

Instead, security managers should make the effort to follow the science and ensure that their management practices are consistent with what we know about the brain and body. As part of their duty of care for employees, security leaders should integrate department or companywide strategies to encourage self-care, increase wellness, and encourage breaks. It's the manager’s job to help enable employees to thrive, rather than increase their risk of cracking under the burden.  

Sarah J. Powell is director of emergency management at Temple University, where her work includes critical incident management, risk assessment, strategy, operations coordination, and training and exercises. She has also served as a consultant and educator in the areas of business continuity, public health, and disaster mental health response.