Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stress Kills Learning and Memory

I have already discussed the fact that lack of sleep affects memory and thinking, but we must remember, too that, stress -- even short-term stress -- also affects memory and learning. We are not talking about mere pressure to get things done by a deadline. No, we are talking about fight-and-flight stress. The things that make employees fearful and defensive.

It is not hard to imagine the following cycle:

An employee forgets to do something. His boss tells him that if he forgets again, his job is in jeopardy. The employee, now stressed, forgets something else. The employee gets written up and warned that if he forgets again, he will definitely lose his job. The employee's stress is increased even more. Since stress affects memory, what do you think is the likelihood he will forget again? Certainly the pressure to remember that thing may override the stress, but the stress is likely to make the employee forget other things. Chasing after the employee on each of these things only makes the employee more and more stressed, and forget more and more things. It becomes a vicious cycle, ending in the employee's termination.

Now, one may just shrug one's shoulders and say, "Well, I can always hire someone else." Which is true. But you may have run off what was once a good employee (before the increases in stress made him a bad one), and it costs to train someone else. Not to mention the costs incurred from the forgetfulness of the employee in question.

This is not to say that you should just let things go. Hardly. But at the same time, management must never forget the history of the employee in question. Keeping things in context, and letting the employee know you are doing so, can help one to correct without creating stress.

Above I was discussing the creation of stress in an individual employee -- but it is just as important to keep a stress-free environment as much as possible for everyone. High-stress environments create high leels of cortisol in people, and that obstructs the laying down of new memories. In other words, it blocks learning. Particularly in creative work, this is highly detrimental to the bottom line, to have one's employees less able to learn -- let alone to remember. Productivity gains can be made by simply trying to make sure the environment is as stress-free as possible (and making sure everyone gets plenty of sleep helps too).

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