Mental Overload – what is it?

A few definitions

Mental overload happens when what is required to perform a task cost more than the energy/resources we have available to perform this same task.

Mental Overload = Task request / Available Resources

Cognitive load = the cost of processing information in most given circumstances for an individual. Regular cognitive overload can be bad for you. 

Our limited cognitive resources can only deal with a certain number of tasks at the same time without running into some difficulty.

Most common factors

These are the most common factors of mental overload : 

  • Paradoxical injunctions
  • Neverending situations and task load  
  • No sense or vision in the work, just a succession of different tasks 
  • Interruptions
  • Too much task switching 
  • Priorities not managed
  • Lack of empowerment and autonomy to make decisions
  • Urgency in everything

Most common consequences

Here are some of the main consequences to regular overload at work : 

  • Decreases quality of life and productivity
    • Your mind becomes saturated and you accomplish less
    • The stress derived from work overload leads to excessive segregation of certain hormones (cortisol)
    • Deterioration of social relationships
  • Can lead to a burnout syndrome 

Adaptation syndrom 

Stress is sometimes thought of as a mental pressure, but it also has a physical effect on the body. 

Hans Selye is describing the following syndrome through a three-stage response that the body has to stress : 

  1. Alarm reaction : a distress signal is sent to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which enables the release of hormones called glucocorticoids, that trigger the adrenaline and cortisol, which is a stress hormone, that leads to heart rate increase, blood pressure raise and blood sugar levels up.
  2. Resistance : the body tries to counteract the physiological changes that happened during stage 1. 
    1. if stressful situation stops : all return to normal 
    2. if stressful situation goes on : body will stay in state of alert → this leads to a person struggling to concentrate and becoming irritable
  3. Exhaustion : after an extended period of stress, the body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying but failing to recover from the initial alarm reaction stage. The body is then no longer equipped to fight stress and we may experience tiredness, anxiety, depression, feeling unable to cope …. 

Flow theory : the most efficient place to be

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.


Mental overload can not only lead to decreased productivity and efficiency, but also to serious health issues. 

It is important to reduce mental overload and stress at work if we want healthy and efficient people.  


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