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Mental decline in the workplace has become so apparent that “for the first time ever, work-related stress — anxiety or depression — accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain”.

Undoubtedly it’s no coincidence that workers are being overwhelmed with an unattainable work load. The CIPD recently revealed in their annual survey (which examines 6,000 workers internationally) that “one in four UK workers overwork by ten hours a week or more” with “one in three workers (32%) admitting to having “too much work”.

Having multiple tasks to fulfil whilst in work is taxing in itself, but for some, the overwhelming pressures of a demanding work load never subside. Once upon a time, (approximately 37 years ago, before the beginnings of the World Wide Web) workers would return home and relax.

Alas, nowadays the advances of computer technology mean that the modern employee never needs to switch off. Submitting to the guilt and tension of unfinished work, workers nowadays pick it back up on arrival home, or even during the commute. After all, they have the resources to do so.

What is the Zeigarnik Effect?

The effect was coined by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1920. It’s a human phenomenon — proven through various studies and tests — used to define the nagging sensation that invades the mind.

When a person fails to complete whatever it is they’ve been occupying themselves with for a period of time, they become burdened with a “task-specific tension”. This can occur subconsciously or consciously, and will remain until the exercise at hand is completed.

The stress-inducing strain is by result of a “heightened cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents”. This means that your brain becomes bombarded with thoughts of your outstanding workload.

Active rehearsal begins then to take its course, where the pressure is passed from your short-term memory into your long-term. The imagined struggle becomes real. It is then made impossible for you to forget your unfinished work efforts, which puts your brain in an “uncomfortable position”.

A sustained level of discomfort can then influence health problems to emerge, such as mental illness and, inevitably, sleep deprivation.

Staff burnout

A survey carried out by CareerBuilder proved that 45% of us work outside of normal office hours, and another 49% answer emails when we leave work.

Burnout is responsible for a vast amount of mental health issues in the workplace. Taking a huge toll on 21st century occupants, work strain is influencing illnesses such as anxiety and depression, as well as insomnia.

Maintaining a consistent sleep pattern is considered a critical factor to optimum wellbeing, yet the Sleep Council’s Great British Bedtime Report revealed “almost three quarters (74%) of Brits sleep less than seven hours per night”.

The Zeigarnik Effect is everywhere

Producers, authors, video-game publishers and record labels — to name a few — have been exploiting human cognition and cashing in on it for years.

When delivering content to consumers, they allude to a sequel, or insert a cliffhanger, leaving them audience obsessing over future instalments. “To be continued…”

The Zeigarnik effect is always looming over you. It’s hiding in your television, lurking in the mounting pile on your desk, and submerged in the half-tackled washing pile. There’s no escaping it.

Tackling the effect

However, there are various ways to help defuse the overwhelming stresses that are so heavily associated with the phenomenon.

Start by identifying that it is physically impossible to undertake and finish everything that life throws at you at once.

From simply introducing basic measures you needn’t leave the office feeling overwhelmed or unworthy. We’re human, we’re all work in progress, and that’s okay.

About The Author

Stephanie Whalley

Serial snacker, compulsive cocktail sipper and full time wordsmith with a penchant for alliteration, all things marketing and pineapple on pizza.

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