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COVID-19 Linked to Cognitive Failures at Work

Cognitive failures have downstream effects on performance and more.

Key points

  • A recent study shows that people who have had COVID-19 may struggle to return to their pre-COVID levels of functioning.
  • Having contracted COVID-19 was associated with problems with memory, attention, and performing routine job tasks.
  • There was no relationship between the amount of time since a person had contracted COVID-19 and the level of cognitive failures they reported.

It is clear that COVID-19 is going to be around for the foreseeable future. It’s now common for individuals to contract COVID-19, recover, and return to work. Yet, a recent study that I published with one of my graduate students (Arden Flow) indicates that many of these individuals may struggle to return to their pre-COVID levels of functioning. Specifically, we found that having contracted COVID-19 was associated with increased cognitive failures at work—i.e., problems with memory, attention, and performing routine actions on the job.

We collected data from a sample of working adults in the United States who either had (n = 45) or had not (n = 49) contracted COVID-19 in the past. These individuals were matched on key demographic variables (age, gender, race, education, and income) in an attempt to rule out potential alternative explanations for our results. Importantly, we found that individuals who had contracted COVID-19 in the past reported experiencing significantly more cognitive failures at work (approximately ½ standard deviation), relative to individuals who had never had COVID-19.

More so, cognitive failures were in turn related to self-ratings of job performance and intentions to quit. That is, people who'd had COVID-19 reported performing worse on the job and being more likely to leave their jobs, relative to people who had never had COVID-19. These effects occurred because of increased cognitive failures.

We also found that there was no relationship between the amount of time that had passed since a person had contracted COVID-19 and the level of cognitive failures that were reported. Whereas some participants had contracted COVID-19 as recently as 40 days before the start of our study, others had contracted it up to 526 days prior to the study. Yet, the amount of time that had elapsed had no effect on the level of cognitive failures that were reported. This indicates that cognitive failures may be a somewhat persistent problem following COVID-19 infection.

An important caveat of this study is that our data were collected in July 2021, and 80% of the participants who’d contracted COVID-19 did so prior to March 2021, before vaccination against it became widely available in the United States. Thus, it’s likely that the majority of the individuals in this study who had contracted COVID-19 were unvaccinated at the time. Because fully vaccinated individuals tend to have better outcomes with regard to COVID-19 than unvaccinated individuals, it may be the case that vaccination attenuates the effects of the virus on cognitive failures. More research is needed to speak directly to this point.

Finally, these results do not suggest that everyone who catches COVID-19 will necessarily experience increased cognitive failures at work. Nonetheless, the results do suggest that on average, individuals (or at least unvaccinated individuals) who have contracted COVID-19 are more likely to struggle to meet the demands of their jobs, relative to individuals who have been able to avoid infection.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

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