Cognition – Managing problem solving, thinking, attention and memory at work

Cognitive and thinking skills

Cognitive or thinking skills can be hard for people if their disability affects the way their brain processes information, for example, people with intellectual disabilities, acquired brain injuries, specific learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, psychiatric disorders, dementia or other neurological conditions. Poor cognitive and thinking skills can lead to stress, social withdrawal and poor work performance. This can cause people to feel frustrated with themselves and others, become overwhelmed and easily confused when trying to learn new information. As a result, people can withdraw from others and underperform in their role at work.

The processes affected by cognitive or thinking skills include critical thinking, problem solving, attention, concentration and memory, organisation and planning. These processes and some suggested workplace solutions and adjustments are provided below.

Original and creative thinking

Original or creative thinking means the ability to question the common way of doing things and form new ideas or approaches to solve a problem or meet a need. It involves higher-level brain functioning, incorporating the use of intuition, making unusual connections or associations, imagination, objectivity and the willingness to take risks.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

  • fostering a friendly, open work environment, where verbal and written input from workers regarding operations, work processes and methods is valued and encouraged
  • establishing a buddy program with a co-worker to provide mentoring and prompting for workers with a cognitive impairment

Problem Solving

Problem solving is the ability to find answers to problems using an organised thought process.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking refers to the mental process of analysing information accurately, precisely, comprehensively and without bias. Both problem solving and critical thinking involve gathering of information, defining the issue and breaking it down into smaller sections to action through to an outcome or solution.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

  • prompts, reminders and checklists can assist people with problem solving as they can be used to assess the situation and provide information about the problem, such as what has been done, when and what is next
  • aids like graphic organisers can help people with problem solving. These enable the removal of most of the words and focus on connections or links between ideas using only key words and images. This allows people to look at the whole problem as well as the interrelated smaller issues. Graphic organisers have many names including visual maps, mind mapping, and visual organisers.

Attention, concentration and remembering work tasks

Attention is the process of selectively concentrating thinking on one aspect or task whilst ignoring other things, so thinking in an intended direction. The ability to maintain attention and concentration to focus on learning new information and/or focus on carrying out tasks and activities is a general work requirement across all industries.

The ability to remember work tasks and activities is also a necessary requirement across workplaces.

It is important to recognise that difficulty maintaining attention/concentration or remembering can be related to disability and that understanding and support at work should be made available. Memory issues in particular can affect job performance and safety in the workplace.

Workplace solutions and adjustments

  • avoid or eliminate distractions and do not multitask as this will divide attention
  • break down job tasks into small steps and use visual prompts for each step to assist with refocus and continuation with tasks
  • use a pin-up board/white board to display task flow charts
  • use ‘to do’ lists which can be ticked off as completed to help with tracking actions
  • schedule regular breaks to accommodate a reduced attention span
  • schedule the early part of the working day for ‘attention demanding’ tasks or activities, with less demanding tasks scheduled later in the day
  • rotate between tasks to increase interest
  • establish a buddy program with a co-worker to provide extra support and encouragement to keep on task
  • establish a set work routine to make it easier to remember and allow time to adjust if the routine alters
  • minimise potential distractions to concentration, for example, partition off the workspace, have a workstation away from other colleagues and reduce noise or other distracting factors
  • incorporate the use of acronyms and mnemonics which can be short poems or sayings used to remember information
  • foster a healthy lifestyle for workers, for example, be conscious of stress levels in the workplace, encourage physical fitness and, if food or meals are provided, make healthy foods available

There are also different aids and products that can help prompt memory:

  • calendars
  • clocks, watches and timers with built-in prompts
  • colour coding
  • electronic organisers

Organising, planning and managing time

Difficulties associated with organisation, planning and the ability to effectively judge and manage time can adversely affect job performance, as they are important skills for efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace. The ability to prepare and organise daily work requirements or tasks provides structure or a semblance of order to each working day and can reduce stress levels. Examples include not being prepared at meetings, poor punctuality due to lack of travel planning or limited reliability as an employee.

Workplace solutions and adjustments

  • establish a buddy system with a co-worker to provide extra support and guidance
  • various organising and timing devices are available including calendars, watches and timers with prompts

Support Services

For all cognition deficits, other supports such as job coaches, skills trainers and mentors can assist people with problem solving and critical thinking skill development in the workplace. Strategies may include role playing, reviewing information with the employee or presenting information in a way that is more easily understood, such as through Easy English translation.
A cognition and communication specialist, such as a speech pathologist, may be helpful in identifying any barriers through an assessment.

Specialist employment agencies who provide coaching and support on the job for people with disability may be able to assist a person to learn how to problem solve at work. Find a provider near you.

Related Links

Dementia Australia
Autism Awareness Australia
Brain Injury Australia

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