It is common in our society to complain about stress in our jobs. And indeed, the negative consequences of a stressful job are quite evident. However, newest studies reveal that there are also positive aspects that show: the more challenging your job, the longer you stay mentally fit.
Looking at our modern-day work environment can be quite a cause of worry as symptoms of burnout are on the rise. For example, the 2014/2015 statistics of the Office of National Statistics in the UK found that 4.26 million working days were lost in Great Britain due to people feeling stressed .
Here, the biggest source (40%) of stress were factors such as an extensive workload, pressure due to tight deadlines, and too much responsibilities . This so-called phenonemon of ‘absenteeism’ can cause significant economic damage, not to mention the severe harm burnout can have on those affected by it. Nowadays, the word ‘stress’ is almost automatically associated with the terms ‘job’, ‘work’, and ‘career’.
Our two-faced jobs
Is our work environment destroying us? Or are we destroying ourselves with our ambitious career aspirations? It is undeniable that today’s work environment demands a lot from us. But this is only half the truth. It has also been shown that burnout occurs especially in jobs that are socially demanding (e.g. teachers or nursing staff) and not in jobs that are challenging per se. That’s why, we should be careful not to lump together all jobs when analysing which ones are likely to cause burnout symptoms.
8 year long-term study
The scientist Francisca Then of the University of Leipzig, Germany, published a study, in which she examined in what ways our jobs influence the ageing process in our brain . Then and her colleagues examined retired people, aged 75 or above, over a time span of 8 years. Every 1.5 years, they measured the cognitive performance capacity of participants with a standardised cognitive test (Mini-Mental State Examination; MMSE).
In addition to this, the participants were also interviewed and asked about their former working life. Their job tasks were evaluated based on 3 categories: executive, verbal, and fluid tasks.
Executive tasks are for example the planning of workflows and the development of strategies, while verbal tasks define the assessment and understanding of information. Fluid tasks on the other hand, include data analysis and selective attention. It was also taken into consideration to what intensity these tasks were conducted in each individual job. Therefore, an individual job profile was created for every participant.
Different mental performance capacities
After 8 years of gathering data, the researchers analysed what they had collected. They found that participants whose jobs were challenging, achieved the highest results in the standardised cognitive tests. Even more remarkable was that the decline of their cognitive performance capacities within these 8 years was significantly lower than that of participants with less challenging jobs. The cognitive performance decline of those with challenging jobs was only half as much as that of their counterparts with less challenging jobs. What is new about these findings is that they explore this topic from a different perspective than most research did in the past, when it mainly focused on studying the importance of knowledge and education as protective measures against our cognitive decline. The new findings now demonstrate that our job is just as influencial to our cognitive functions as our knowledge and education.
The different ways of staying mentally fit
What becomes clear through these research findings is that mental activity that is challenging, can effectively slow down the ageing process of our brain. And while our jobs can be a good way of challenging ourselves mentally, there are also other methods that train your mental abilities. All in all, it doesn’t matter what method you use to stay fit mentally: As long as it is practiced regularly and remains challenging to you, it is a great way to keep you mentally active long into old age.
So what can we take away from this study? The more your job challenges you, the better your mental performance capacity will be when you’re older and the slower its decline in old age. But don’t worry if your job isn’t challenging enough. How about looking for a mentally challenging activity in your leisure time?
 Armstrong, Angela. “Burnout – statistics, symptoms, and solutions.” [Web blog post]. Armstrong. 23.11.2015. Retrieved from: http://www.angelaarmstrong.com/news/burnout–statistics-symptoms-and-solutions
 Then, F. S., Luck, T., Luppa, M., König, H.-M., Angermeyer, M. C., & Riedel-Heller, S. G. (2015). Differential effects of enriched environment at work on cognitive decline in old age. Neurology, doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000001605