Work could heal the mind: microtasking from a cognitive perspective

May 17th, 2010 by

Recent studies of cognitive disorders have found that basic cognitive exercises can help to restore the level of cognitive processing. In this article guest writer Katri Saarikivi discusses how task based work, and in particular microtasks, offer exciting opportunities for not only the treatment of cognitive dysfunction, but also reducing lost productivity in the workplace.

Cognitive difficulties in different illnesses
Cognitive difficulties can arise in conjunction with many kinds of illness and stressors. Obvious states such as burnout, brain injury or dementia and less obvious such as schizophrenia, depression or even gambling addiction are associated with difficulties in cognitive functioning. The difficulties come about especially through disruption of neurocognitive functions such as working memory, executive function and attention. These are very basic functions of the mind that make it possible for people to act purposefully and smoothly in their environment, pursue goals and balance between personal needs and the needs of others. They can be viewed as the precursors to intelligent action, the basic functions needed to operate in the world and employ one’s intelligence and knowledge.

The neural mechanisms behind cognitive functions are still being discovered. A lot is however known about how difficulties in cognitive functioning affect day-to-day life and human thought processes. Cognitive difficulties associated with depression, a very common condition, can last longer than the disruption of mood. The cognitive aspect of the illness makes working and returning to normal life after sick leave difficult, even though mood is normalized. In the case of schizophrenia, a study showed that most patients feel that neurocognitive symptoms affect their quality of life to a greater extent than psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations. This seems incredible, but if you imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t concentrate, carry out actions in a logical way or even plan them, it becomes easier to comprehend the devastating effects that neurocognitive difficulties can have on people’s lives.

Measurement of cognitive function and therapeutic methodology
Neurocognitive functioning has been routinely measured in clinical psychological assessments for a long time and there is abundant information about the normal level of functioning and well-researched methods to spot specific difficulties. Curing cognitive difficulties is however a newer area of interest and research. There is, for instance, no medical treatment. Many drugs that are used – for example in treatment of schizophrenia – can slow down cognitive deterioration but definitive results for remediation are yet to be seen. However, encouraging results about truly restoring cognitive function have been obtained with different kinds of cognitive remediation. One method of remediation called CRT (for cognitive remediation therapy), consists of interactive sessions concentrating on exercises that require the use of working memory, executive function and attention. The effect of the therapy is based on training the neurocognitive functions that have deteriorated because of the mental illness. Cognitive remediation therapies can also include a metacognitive aspect through verbalizing and becoming aware of thought processes involved in completing the exercises.

Work can support wellbeing
In addition to its specific therapeutic benefits, cognitive remediation therapy provides the mind with stimulation and purpose. The mind needs purposeful action to heal itself, passivity does not help and can even hinder recovery. In depression, it has been noticed that treatment with long sick leaves actually counteracts recovery. The explaining factor could be that on sick leave, all the stimulating structures of work become unavailable, leaving the mind passive.

Although there is a link between work overload, burnout and depression, work has the potential to be experienced as meaningful and a source of long-lasting wellbeing. As work is such an important determinant of peoples’ lives, it seems unfruitful to exclude it at times when it could provide support for wellbeing. When aiming to make use of the wellbeing-support that work could offer in depression, the important things to consider are the cognitive requirements and characteristics as well as the amount of work. Depression causes oversensitivity to overload and susceptibility to fatigue which makes determining the cognitive aspects of work and tailoring the work load of people recovering from depression critical.

Microtasks, basic cognitive functions and therapy
When considering the cognitive aspects of work, the task-based approach offers a multitude of possibilities and ideas. Knowledge intensive work cannot be viewed through positions, work places, hours or roles. What is more important is specific task content and finding effective ways to split work into tasks. Microtasks are small human intelligence tasks (HITs) that require only basic cognitive function, much like the neurocognitive functions explained above. Thinking about work through task content and even on the level of microtasks or HITs, the cognitive characteristics of work can be perceived in detail. When the cognitive details of work are known, it enables matching the specific cognitive needs of the employee to the content of work.

The exercises used in cognitive remediation therapy are quite simple as they require using basic neurocognitive functions of the mind. As microtasks also require only basic cognitive functions, an intriguing overlap becomes evident. What if people could work and support the recovery of cognitive function at the same time? Defining work through task content opens up possibilities for altering work according to the cognitive situation of the worker. Following this line of thought, microtasks could be used to identify and even heal specific cognitive difficulties through careful definition and constellation according to psychological concepts of neurocognition and remediation.

Organizations which define work through task content could harness the remedial qualities of microtasks, with the result that people would not have to leave work for months in case of sickness that affects cognition. Instead, work content could be altered according to therapeutic principles that respond to the specific remedial needs of the employee. This would mean that the employer would not lose valuable human resources and that the employee could benefit from the various ways that working can support wellbeing.

As our knowledge of cognitive function and the cognitive aspects of work increases, wonderful opportunities to redefine working in a way that increases wellbeing become apparent. Providing additional mental health services is one way to approach the problem, but as pressure for a solution increases, something with a more comprehensive effect has to emerge. Molding the structures that people function in and with daily, like organizations and work contents, offers a powerful tool to influence structures of the mind and to reach many people at once. Using work as therapy is not a new idea but with the knowledge we have nowadays, the level of detail and the size of the effect can be amazing. The possibilities are vast and apparent. What is needed next are brave steps towards the task-based paradigm from companies and brave steps towards work life from therapeutic methodology.