How can we make the workplace adapt to us, instead of the other way around?

Neuroscience is finding new ways to regulate our workloads based on our attention spans

Shot of a young corporate businessman taking a break at an office desk. Getty Images
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The mental and physical well-being of employees is increasingly becoming a priority for organisations around the world, both in the public and private sectors. It certainly was a hot topic during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum a few weeks ago in Davos, Switzerland, where I spoke about the future of work.

In order to improve workplace wellness, safety and productivity, companies are creating environments that better adapt to the functioning of employees' mental and physical faculties. This is being made possible with the help of technologies that monitor movements, facial expressions and even brain activity. These technologies are essentially providing employers with the means to assess in real time their workers' physiological, cognitive and affective states, as well as stress levels and attention spans – data that can be used to create more conducive environments.

Businessman on phone at desk in office with hand on forehead
Employees often find themselves distracted by colleagues or phone calls. Getty

Employees regularly come under extraordinary pressure. They operate in complex environments, often required to multitask and deliver results quickly despite a variety of distractions ranging from chatting with colleagues to responding to alerts on their workstations and phones. Being able to track how stressed and distracted workers are in real time allows employers to tailor their workloads and the frequency of breaks. This data is useful, as it can save money and – in the case of some jobs like doctors or pilots – even lives.

In Davos, I was asked whether neuro-technologies can help workplaces be more inclusive of people suffering from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – or ADHD. It is a disorder that commonly afflicts children, but it can continue through adolescence and adulthood, according to the US National Institute of Mental Health. Although figures vary across studies, there seems to be a consensus that the prevalence of ADHD among children ranges from five to seven per cent worldwide. Symptoms associated with ADHD include the inability to focus, impulsiveness, low self-esteem and poor work performance.

The problem is that millions of children suffering from ADHD eventually join the workforce, together with their friends who grew up multitasking while being glued to their smartphones. And given that distractions and the tendency to multitask are two primary causes of workplace errors and accidents these days, I was keen to find out about research being done in this regard. That is when I came across the work of Dr Adam Gazzaley.

A leading light in leveraging neuroscience and brain technologies to better understand attention spans and multitasking, Dr Gazzaley is a distinguished professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco.

Tracking how stressed and distracted workers are in real time allows employers to tailor their workloads

After several years of research and development, he and his team released NeuroRacer, a revolutionary video game powered by algorithms that works on a 'closed loop'. In other words, it constantly reports on the game's level of difficulty for the player and adjusts to their performance. The gamer’s task is to control a vehicle while being distracted and therefore required to multitask.

In 2013, Professor Gazzaley and his team published a study in Nature in which participants aged 20 to 79 played an adapted version of NeuroRacer. A team of scientists led by Professor Gazzaley showed that the game replicates a well-known finding, which is that one's multitasking skills deteriorate with age – making the game a scientifically valid assessment tool.

In a second experiment, they found that those above 60 who trained with NeuroRacer improved their multitasking abilities, with benefits persisting for 6 months. Some of their performances were even superior to people in their 20s who did not benefit from the training. Older adults could even improve cognitive control abilities that were not specifically challenged during the game, such as sustained attention and working memory.

Professor Gazzaley is a pioneer of cognitive digital therapeutics, a field that seeks to address brain-related conditions without intervention from drugs. His methodology and the game itself have been improved since the 2013 seminal study and gone through multiple clinical trials.

No later than last week, The Lancet Digital Health published the results of a randomised, controlled trial conducted between July 2016 and November 2017 on 857 children suffering from ADHD in the United States. A closed-loop, video-based game methodology called AKL-T01, developed by Akili Interactive Labs, a company founded by Professor Gazzaley.

AKL-T01 aims at improving cognitive control “through video game graphics and reward loops and to use real-time adaptive mechanisms that continuously personalise intervention difficulty on the basis of the user's ability and progression”. The children played 25 minutes per day, five days a week for four weeks. The results indicate a significant increase of attention span.

No wonder Nature, back in 2013, called Professor Gazzaley's team's work a "game-changer" on its front cover. They have leveraged rigorous behavioural and brain sciences to create solutions that improve the lives of people who suffer.

Closed-loop adaptive systems are not just the future of therapeutics; they are the real future of work. Workplaces should no longer be about employees trying to adapt to a one-size-fits all environment. It is the workplace that must adapt to who employees are, and how their brains and bodies feel. Closing the loop by allowing workplaces to adapt in real time to how employees feel at a given time is the key to making work truly inclusive and ready for the generations to come.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv and a neuroscientist and a DJ