Why do I feel tired after working all day at my desk?
Do you always feel exhausted at the end of the working day – even if you’ve only sat down at a desk?
It turns out that mental focus leads to changes in the brain that can really wear us out, researchers from Pitie-Salpetriere University in France have found.
When we perform intense mental work over several hours, potentially toxic byproducts can build up in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the study found. The result? This feeling of mental fatigue sets in.
Have you ever felt irrational and grumpy after hours spent focusing on work tasks? Well, that could be why. Research has found that this process can impair our control over decisions, so we turn to actions that require no effort or waiting. Essentially, the brain begins to shut down.
“All of this science simply means that thinking intensely for prolonged periods leads to mental exhaustion and disruption of executive functioning needed to plan and make decisions,” says leadership and mental health expert Ngozi Cadmus. “Fatigue thus becomes an inevitable consequence of using so much mental power.”
Not only is this mental exhaustion a problem in itself, but these things can have a wider impact. As Cadmus notes, “Prolonged exhaustion can lead to difficulty in a person’s daily life, impact relationships and daily activities, and inhibit normal functioning.”
So what can we do to help fight it?
In our productivity-obsessed world, making downtime a priority is vital. “If regular rest isn’t built into a person’s daily structure, it can disrupt brain function,” Cadmus says. “Therefore, rest is essential to allow proper regulation of [the neurotransmitter] glutamate to its normal levels.
Look for variety
Paula Allen, Senior Vice President of Research and Total Wellness at LifeWorks (lifeworks.com/en), says doing the same tasks for hours on end can exhaust our brains.
“The mere lack of variety in our daily routine is in itself a mental strain, which many do not recognize. We need a balanced ‘diet’ for our brain as much as we need it nutritionally,” says Allen, who says we need “experiences that provide pleasure, fulfillment, connection with others, movement and disorientation. We feel excessively tired and more irritable when our range of mental stimulation is too narrow.
“When working from home, many employees also lose structural cues present in the office, such as scheduled meetings and lunch breaks. For some, that means the breaks never happen. For others, it affects the ability to focus on a task within a limited time frame, as one hour fades into the next.
“It’s important to listen to our body. If you find that a task you used to do seamlessly in the workplace now feels like a chore, then it’s time to take a break.
Have a consistent nighttime routine
For Cadmus, getting “a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night is important” to balance mental exhaustion.
Allen agrees: “Sleep is a major factor in physical and mental well-being, and a current risk factor. Our Mental Health Index found that 40% of Britons want to improve their sleep, demonstrating the need to tackle mental stress and provide information on general sleep hygiene as part of their support and solutions of well-being. »
Take regular breaks from the office
In addition to your main rest time and lunch break, regular short breaks from your workstation can make a big difference. Chances are you’ll be more efficient and productive overall.
“Take a step back, pay attention to your limits and communicate how you feel to your manager. Communication and problem solving between employers and employees is critical and becomes even more important as we navigate the post-pandemic world of work,” Allen advises.
Cadmus also points out that “regular exercise” is good for the brain and stress levels. So why not go for a lunchtime run or workout, or go out for a short walk?
Dehydration makes us all groggy and more tired, so be sure to drink enough water throughout the day. If mental fatigue bothers you, consider cutting back on caffeine and alcohol as well, Cadmus advises. This will help alleviate the stress your brain is under.