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The working world: Going mental

Do you leave your brain at the entrance of your workplace and collect it at 5.30pm? If so, recent research suggests it might not be there when you go to retrieve it one day, writes Niall Byrne

‘While prolonged involvement in mundane work can sap your motivation, there is a segment of the scientific community that believes it can sap your brain power’

Most people will have done ‘brain-dead’ work at some point in their lives, whether it’s packing elastic bands and paper clips into cardboard boxes or manning the toll booths on the M50.

While prolonged involvement in mundane work can sap your motivation, there is a segment of the scientific community that believes it can sap your brain power.
Studies from the US have linked the onset of Alzheimer’s disease with a low level of mental stimulation at work. According to the study by researchers in Cleveland, people with Alzheimer’s are more likely to have had less mentally stimulating careers than their peers who do not have Alzheimer’s.

You may never reach the dizzy intellectual heights of Einstein, but get yourself a stimulating job and chances are you will be a whole lot sharper mentally

“It could be that higher levels of mental demands result in increased brain cell activity, which may help maintain a ‘reserve' of brain cells that resists the effects of Alzheimer's,” says Dr Kathleen Smyth, one of the research team leaders. “Or it could be that the disease has a very early effect on the individual's capacity to pursue a mentally challenging occupation.”

Closer to home, researchers in University College Dublin found that, after taking a programme of cognitive exercises, volunteers aged 55-70 experienced metabolic changes in the brain and improved memory performance. A converse relationship between mental stimulation and mental decline is not unanimously accepted by the scientific community. A study by University of Virginia’s Dr Timothy Salthouse found ‘little scientific evidence that engagement in mentally stimulating activities alters the rate of mental ageing’, calling the belief ‘more of an optimistic hope than an empirical reality’.

Whatever about the neurological implications later on in life, many people cite not getting a chance to use their brain as one of the main reasons for leaving a job.
While not everyone can be a rocket scientist, how do you make sure you have the proper grey matter to follow your dreams?

“There are different aptitudes for different roles and it’s worthwhile for people to evaluate them if they’re interested in going in a certain direction,” says Dr Joe MacAree, managing psychologist at Pearn Kandola. “Tests can show if you should pursue a  certain job or if you don’t have natural strengths in that area.

“For example, in areas of the IT world such as programming and dealing with code, there’s an aptitude for diagrammatic reasoning. Somebody can be tested for that and if the link is there and they have an interest in that career path, they’re more likely to be successful.”

The use of aptitude tests in secondary school can show where a student’s abilities lie and students should pay attention to them, says John Deely, occupational psychologist at Pinpoint. They normally test for numeracy, verbal and spatial skills. However, he warns that having a particular aptitude isn’t necessarily predictive of suitability for a career. “Being strong numerically doesn’t automatically mean you should become an accountant,” he says.

Factors such as personality and motivation are generally assumed by employers to be just as vital when it comes to succeeding in a role. “With aptitude tests, recruiters match candidates against those basic requirements and then assess their motivation and personality in follow-up interviews,” says MacAree.

Deely says there is an onus on employers to ensure the selection process tests qualities that are relevant to the job. “If you are applying for a job in the biopharmaceutical industry, for example, there are certain aptitudes you need. A lot of these companies have aptitude tests and if you score below a certain level, your other qualities won’t compensate for that. “If employers fail to present the job properly they could be left with someone they’ve hired in good faith who is not suited to the job.”

A grey matter

There are ways that companies can help employees make the most of their grey matter. “Organisations are moving towards people’s individual strengths and are seeing if they can match the roles to those,” says MacAree. “Sometimes there is an over-emphasis on development needs when what you really need is  to move people to positions that suit their mental and motivational capabilities.”

Providing employees with a level of autonomy and flexibility is a good way to stimulate them. “Even in a routine job, you may find a quicker or  better way of doing something and if you’re encouraged to come up with those suggestions — be it in a formal or informal manner — that can be a very powerful way to engage you,” says MacAree.

Rachel Mooney, head of human resources (HR) with Google Ireland, outlines some ways in which her company helps ensure employees don’t feel underused. “We try not to pigeonhole people into teams. If you’ve been hired as a salesperson we’ll encourage you to move on to another area such as marketing or if you wanted to move into HR or engineering, we’d facilitate that. It’s about investing in people in the long term.”

Google strives to create a campus-like environment where people can work together and form loose partnerships that can break apart when they’ve achieved what they set out to do, she explains. “It’s an environment to innovate, where people feel they can take a risk and try something different,” she says.

So if manning the toll booth on the M50 isn’t floating your boat, think of it as a stepping stone. With a little hard work and determination you could end up being one of the brainiacs who designs our transport infrastructure.

Exercise your brain at work


There are a few techniques to see you through the working day without your brain turning into mush. They don’t require debating the philosophies of Derrida and Foucault instead of gossiping about Big Brother or the Premiership in the staff canteen either.

“You could look at organising your tasks in a particular way so that it makes your work a bit more stimulating,” says Deely.

“If you have to do a reconciliation exercise, pick a time of the day when you feel you’re going to be sharp, give yourself a fixed amount of time and treat it like a test so you’re forcing yourself to work under a certain level of pressure.”

Neurobics is another concept that has gained ground in recent years. “Neurobics is all about doing a series of mental exercises to maintain your sharpness. There is a whole industry and range of books around this. You could buy a day calendar with those puzzles. It depends on how easy it is to weave those things into the fabric of your day.”

Regular Sudoku and crossword puzzles can keep you alert, but even rudimentary things such as alternating the hand with which you use your mouse can stimulate nerve cells in the brain that are rarely used.

Performing ordinary tasks in a novel way is the key to neurobic exercise. If you walk into work one morning and your colleagues are walking backwards or taking calls upside down in their chairs, chances are they will have bought a book on the subject.
At any rate, it’s simpler and less likely to irritate your co-workers than delving into the finer points of post-structuralist thought.

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