The conversations started last fall. Friends and colleagues who are far too young to be worried about age-related dementia began to mention their growing inability to hold onto their thoughts. As one friend confessed, “Camille, I need to get checked for early onset of dementia. Yesterday, I was holding a piece of paper in my hand, and it took me a few moments to remember why I had picked it up. What’s going on?”
Increased forgetfulness is always alarming. If you’re a healthy person in your thirties or forties and you can’t remember why you picked up a piece of paper, it may even be a red flag. But these also aren’t normal times. In fact, there is a growing body of research that suggests that months of heightened stress and social isolation are having an impact on our brains, including our ability to remember.
How the Pandemic Has Impacted Our Memory
First, to clarify, it is essential to distinguish what I’m describing here as “COVID forgetfulness” from “COVID brain fog.” Unlike COVID brain fog, a cognitive impairment experienced by some but not all people who have had COVID-19, COVID forgetfulness isn’t caused by COVID-19 but rather by pandemic-related circumstances, including heightened stress and social distancing. While not yet conclusive, emerging research suggests that months of ongoing stress and isolation are having a measurable effect on our brains and, specifically, our ability to remember.
Studies carried out before the pandemic found that social isolation increases memory decline. Research also suggests that while moderate stress can positively impact memory, ongoing chronic stress can have a negative impact on memory.
During the pandemic, both social isolation and stress have increased. Some recent reports suggest the combination is already taking its toll, even on younger people who previously prided themselves on having exceptional memories. Other factors may also be at work.
As the pandemic forced both schools and workplaces to move online overnight, media multitasking spiked. There is considerable evidence that chronic media multitasking has a negative impact on memory. Many studies have also found that the pandemic has resulted in at least a moderate increase in alcohol consumption, which is also commonly associated with memory loss.
While forgetting what you were supposed to pick up at the grocery store or where you placed your keys may not have a considerable impact, in the workplace, the pandemic’s negative impact on our memories can carry more severe consequences.
To begin, there is an increased risk that we may drop the ball on an important issue (e.g., miss a deadline or overlook a critical detail). There are also other consequences.
Decision-making is a process that requires one to draw on past experiences and expertise. In fact, the best decision-makers are people who have vast experiences and expertise to draw on and the capacity to quickly process this information to select the very best possible action. When our memories are compromised, we may struggle to recall past experiences and knowledge, which may, in turn, compromise our ability to make the best decisions. This carries especially troubling consequences for leaders.
Worse yet, forgetfulness may be a symptom of a broader problem. Burnout, defined by the World Health Organization as an inability to manage chronic stress, is associated with a host of cognitive dysfunctions from fatigue and anxiety to memory and concentration problems. Some studies have found that memory and concentration problems may even be present in non-clinical forms of burnout. As the pandemic continues to normalize conditions that are far from normal, many people are failing to recognize that they are experiencing burnout. Forgetting may be a sign that you are at risk or already suffering from burnout.
Prevention and Mitigation Strategies
This brings me to a pressing question: As we continue to face heightened stress levels, social isolation, and the need to media-multitask, is there anything we can do to prevent COVID forgetfulness? If you’re a leader, you may also be wondering if you can do anything to prevent COVID forgetfulness on your team. The good news is that there are things we can do to at least mitigate the effects of COVID forgetfulness.
Be Gentle With Yourself
If you’re currently feeling more forgetful than you were pre-pandemic, you are likely not exhibiting signs of early dementia but rather suffering from cognitive overload and fatigue. So, cut yourself some slack. Accept the fact that you’ve been working under exceptional conditions for months, and your memory may be compromised as a result.
Rebuild Your Bandwidth
Before March 2020, nearly every executive I worked with complained of bandwidth management problems. There were too many things demanding their time, energy, and attention, and they were struggling to put the right focus on the right priorities at the right time. We build bandwidth (and focus) by reducing our cognitive load (i.e., strains, drains, and distractions).
With the pandemic’s arrival, some executives found more time (e.g., as travel was put on pause). But as some activities were paused, others became more complex and time-consuming. Worse yet, bandwidth management strategies that may have worked pre-pandemic may not have been feasible once work and nearly all other aspects of life moved online.
As the pandemic continues, it is essential to rebuild your bandwidth (i.e., take steps to intentionally reduce strain, drain, and distraction in your life). Building bandwidth starts with three key steps:
- Awareness: Build the perspective needed to understand how to increase your time, energy, and attention.
- Agility: Agility is the ability to get things done via multiple paths. When you have agility, you are better equipped to respond to anything that comes your way.
- Action: Put up filters to limit the amount of information you have to process each day. This may mean altering your environment to reduce drain (e.g., by limiting the number of online work platforms you're using). Commit to creating the best possible work conditions to focus and thrive.
Manage Latent Stress
Latent stress is stress that is present but not always fully visible. As high levels of stress continue to be normalized during the pandemic, latent stress is increasing. Recognizing that we may be suffering from more stress than we realize—and that this could have long-term side effects—is crucial. Actions taken now to reduce stress can help us mitigate long-term mental and physical side effects. Simply put, managing our latent stress now is one way to set ourselves up for post-traumatic growth.
So, what should you do the next time you pick up a piece of paper and take several moments to recall why? First, don’t fret. If your memory isn’t as sharp as it was a year ago, the pandemic may be to blame. Second, recognize that slower than normal recall may be a gentle reminder that you need to do a better job taking care of yourself as you continue to work and live under these exceptionally challenging conditions.
Golkar A, Johansson E, Kasahara M, Osika W, Perski A, et al. (2014) The Influence of Work-Related Chronic Stress on the Regulation of Emotion and on Functional Connectivity in the Brain. PLOS ONE 9(9): e104550. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0104550
Lechner, W. V., Day, A. M., Metrik, J., Leventhal, A. M., & Kahler, C. W. (2016). Effects of alcohol-induced working memory decline on alcohol consumption and adverse consequences of use. Psychopharmacology, 233(1), 83–88. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-015-4090-z
Redish, A. D., & Mizumori, S. J. (2015). Memory and decision making. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 117, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2014.08.014
Sandi C. Memory Impairments Associated with Stress and Aging. In: Bermúdez-Rattoni F, editor. Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2007. Chapter 12.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3914/
Sanna Read, PhD, Adelina Comas-Herrera, MSc, Emily Grundy, PhD, Social Isolation and Memory Decline in Later-life, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 75, Issue 2, February 2020, Pages 367–376, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz152
Uncapher, M. R., K Thieu, M., & Wagner, A. D. (2016). Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 23(2), 483–490. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0907-3
van Dijk, D. M., van Rhenen, W., Murre, J., & Verwijk, E. (2020). Cognitive functioning, sleep quality, and work performance in non-clinical burnout: The role of working memory. PloS one, 15(4), e0231906. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231906