A study published in Neurology, the most widely read and highly cited peer-reviewed neurology journal, discovered an interesting connection between cognitive performance and levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a “stress hormone” that is produced by the adrenal glands and is involved in regulating blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation as well as controlling salt and water balance and other body functions.
To evaluate the connection, the researchers gave tests for memory, abstract reasoning, visual perception, and attention to 2,231 people, average age 49 and free of dementia. They recorded blood levels of cortisol and did M.R.I. examinations to assess brain volume. The analysis found that individuals with the highest levels of cortisol had lower scores on cognitive tests relative to people with average levels of cortisol. The research also found that in women, but not in men, higher cortisol was also associated with reduced brain volume. There was no association of the lowest cortisol levels with either cognitive test scores or brain size.
Since the human body produces cortisol when under stress, the research shows a specific reason why employers should care about how stressed their employees are. Whether from personal or professional reasons, stress can negatively impact how well an employee can serve in their role, and since employees are a company’s most important asset, the impact to the goals and objectives of an organization may too be adversely impacted by employee stress. Although the connection between employee stress and performance is not new, the research does identify one of the possible root causes for the connection.
There area number of programs and policies employers can implement to help employees manage workplace stress. The right solution will vary for each employer and will likely be multi-faceted. Some options may include stress management education and resources, such as guided meditation or mindfulness classes, as well as policies that limit the pressure from work, including flexible schedules.