office-1316285_640 Dirty workplaces and those that lack stimulation wreak havoc on employees' cognitive health. Pixabay, public domain

We all choose our different career paths, and each one has its conveniences and hardships. When it comes to where we work and its effect on our health, people are divided: Is it worse to work in an unclean workplace or a boring one? Both can pose risks to our physical health, whether it’s  asbestos exposure or a sedentary lifestyle. But how can these different workplace environments impact our psychological health?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers from Florida State University analyzed how a dirty workplace and one that lacks stimulation can impact the long-term cognitive function of its employees.  

"Psychologists say that the brain is a muscle, while industrial hygienists point to chemicals in the work environment that may cause decline," said Joseph Grzywacz, lead researcher from the Norejane Hendrickson Professor of Family and Child Sciences, in a statement. "There are real things in the workplace that can shape cognitive function: some that you can see or touch, and others you can't. We showed that both matter to cognitive health in adulthood."

Grzywacz and his colleagues collected data taken from the Midlife in the United States study, including 4,963 working adults between the ages of 32 and 84 from 48 states (47 percent male and 53 percent female).

The researchers gained insight into each participant’s cognitive function and the relationship to their workplace by examining their ability to maintain and later use learned information. Researchers also took into account executive functioning skills, including the ability to complete tasks, manage time, and pay attention. All participants were asked about any problems with memory they were experiencing.

The study produced two important takeaways: One was that greater occupational complexity, the ability to learn new skills and take on new challenges, leads to stronger cognitive performance, especially among women as they aged. The second was men and women exposed to a dirty working environment suffered cognitive decline.

"Both of these issues are important when we think about the long-term health of men and women,"  Grzywacz added. "The practical issue here is cognitive decline associated with aging and the thought of, 'if you don't use it, you lose it.’ Designing jobs to ensure that all workers have some decision-making ability may protect cognitive function later in life, but it's also about cleaning up the workplace."

Whether it’s relationships between employees or work hours, workplace standards are crucial to the health of employees. Researchers from the University of Minnesota recently compared workplaces that encourage healthy lifestyle practices such as lunchtime yoga classes and eating healthy food to those that do not. Unsurprisingly, employees from unhealthy workplaces were far more likely to be obese.

Source: Lachman M, Segel-Karpas D, Grzywacz J. Workplace Exposures and Cognitive Function During Adulthood: Evidence From National Survey of Midlife Development and the O*NET. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine . 2016.