Ending the Vicious Cycle – Tips for Improving Focus in the Workplace

Staying focused at work is something most employees struggle with from time to time. Distractions, fatigue and stress are all factors that can reduce productivity and increase the risk of accidents and errors within the workplace. When an employee finds it hard to focus at work, he or she can become more stressed as work piles up. The more stressed an employee is, the less productive and more susceptible to burnout he or she will be. All of this leads to a vicious cycle that will continue to worsen the longer it goes unaddressed or uncorrected.

Thoughtful man in a blue shirt sitting by a window with a pen and notebook.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) attributes fatigue as one of the causes of some of the biggest disasters in history. A few of the most notable and catastrophic events that have resulted from the onset of fatigue include the 2005 BP oil refinery explosion and the accidents at the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear power plants in 1986 and 1979, respectively. While the risks of work fatigue might not be quite as dramatic as these for every job, fatigue, stress and the distractions of day-to-day life may, over time, result in workers’ limited ability to focus and concentrate in the workplace.

Today’s workforce spends its days multitasking with smartphones in hand, headphones in ears, texting while driving, talking on the phone and checking email. Experts agree that attempting to do more than one task at a time reduces the performance of each task. Moreover, it’s a fact that most people are not as efficient at multitasking as they think they are, as evidenced by the number of accidents caused by texting and driving.

Then there’s the after-lunch slump. This is when changes in circadian rhythm cause sleepiness, making it difficult for an individual to concentrate and stay focused on work. Some cultures remedy the afternoon slump with a siesta, or midday nap. While napping during the day isn’t part of the work culture in the U.S., there are other strategies that employers can do to improve focus in the workplace and reap the benefits of greater productivity.

Productive workers enjoy the satisfaction of a greater sense of accomplishment, which can lead to better retention rates for the employer and a more experienced workforce. This, in turn, can increase innovation and progress, improve workplace culture, and increase profitability–a virtuous cycle in comparison.  

Employers can help their employees be less stressed at work, be less susceptible to distraction and fatigue, and turn that vicious cycle of mismanaged time into a virtuous cycle of improved focus, concentration and memory. Focus, like a muscle, can grow stronger with practice over time.

What follows is a list of soft skills and self-care strategies that will not only help workers have better focus at work, but will provide many other benefits including improved health, greater concentration and focus, reduced depression and overall general well-being.

Good time-management skills. Some employers provide workshops on soft skills like time-management to help employees learn how to prioritize work and how to break up large projects into smaller milestone tasks. This can help workers avoid feeling overwhelmed and gain a sense of control, which reduces stress.

Exercise. Regular exercise helps reduce “brain fog” and improves memory and thinking skills. The recommended weekly amount of exercise is 150 minutes. Even light exercise is said to help improve mood, alleviate stress and improve cognitive function. Employers can encourage exercise by organizing lunchtime walking clubs and offering discounts on fitness center or park district memberships.

Wellness programs. Many employers go beyond promoting exercise and invest in comprehensive wellness programs for their employees. Some group health insurance providers and risk management companies even have wellness programs that can be implemented by their clients. Another option would be an employee-led wellness committee that is responsible for planning activities that promote wellness. Some activities might include annual weight-loss contests, smoking cessation classes, daily coordinated stretch breaks, or employee incentives. These types of activities create a culture of health and wellness that promotes focus in the workplace.

Light spectrum. Cool blue light and natural light have been shown to improve productivity and increase focus by lowering melatonin levels, which is the hormone that makes people fall asleep. Something as simple as the lighting in the work environment can have a big impact on focus and concentration.

A healthy diet. Sugary snacks may temporarily increase energy with a boost of blood sugar, but sugar will ultimately cause fatigue later when the blood sugar drops again. Employees who have access to vending machines with healthier options that include protein and healthy fats may be more inclined to stay away from sugar. A light lunch that includes protein and healthy Omega-3 fats such as avocado or almonds also helps maintain blood sugar levels.

Meditation. Even a few minutes each day of meditation such as yoga, tai chi and guided meditation can help improve focus. Soft skills training like how to meditate can benefit the employer and its employees.

Good sleep habits. Only 65 percent of adults regularly get the 7-9 hours of sleep each night that is recommended for good health to stay alert and to reduce accidents and errors. Employers who encourage good sleep practices will reap the benefits of a well-rested, focused and productive workforce.

Hydration. The brain is comprised of mostly water so it’s no surprise that dehydration can cause brain fatigue, memory loss, headaches and more. Dehydration also causes drowsiness, so employers can benefit by providing access to filtered water to help employees stay hydrated. Health experts suggest 91 ounces for women and 125 ounces for men of daily water intake from food and beverages

Getting Past the Afternoon Slump

In some cases, despite intentional efforts to maintain good habits and stay focused at work, workers may still experience the afternoon slump.  Below are six immediate strategies that can provide quick relief and improve focus and concentration:

  1. Caffeine. While it may seem obvious, caffeine improves mental sharpness. A cup of coffee in the afternoon can provide a quick boost in focus and concentration.
  2. Physical movement. A quick stretch or a brisk walk to deliver a message in-person rather than by email or phone will improve focus, as will taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Sunshine. Taking a walk outside to soak up some sun rays and breathe fresh air can help improve focus. That’s because the sun’s rays boost the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin and lower the hormone melatonin that causes drowsiness.
  4. Eliminating smartphone distractions. If the temptation to check phone notifications can’t be avoided, experts suggest limiting the amount of time dedicated to using one’s phone. It’s suggested that setting a timer for approximately 15 minutes when using a smartphone can help reduce the temptation to check it continuously. When time is up, turn off notifications and set the phone to do-not-disturb. This way, workers can eliminate smartphone distraction by checking their phones and immediately getting back to the task at hand.
  5. Decluttering. Taking a break mid-day to review to-do lists and prioritize tasks can provide a sense of accomplishment. Cleaning and organizing the physical workspace to remove clutter can also help clear the mind and help regain focus.
  6. Music. While some music might be a distraction, listening to instrumental music without lyrics while working has been shown to increase attention and ability to focus.

Next Steps

To sum it up, focus affects productivity. To increase productivity, employers stand to benefit tremendously by helping their workers stay focused. KnowledgeCity provides a course on fighting fatigue, designed to address issues with focus by training employees to identify and reduce fatigue. A focused, happy workforce leads to better employee retention, increased innovation,  positive work culture, more skilled workforce and ultimately better profit. It’s a virtuous cycle where employers and employees equally benefit.

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