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Difficulty focusing at work after COVID? New research finds possible link

Cognitive failure at work following a COVID-19 infection is putting working adults' self-confidence and financial well-being at risk, a new study shows.
Cognitive failure at work following a COVID-19 diagnosis makes employees more willing to leave their jobs, research says.

New research says that experiencing memory, attention and concentration problems at work could be linked to a previous COVID-19 diagnosis.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo surveyed 94 full-time working adults who had or had not contracted COVID-19 at least a month before the study and found consistent cognitive failure in these adults while at work.

According to the study, one third of individuals who contract COVID-19 report difficulties with cognitive performance upon returning to work. This can lead to lower task performance and higher intentions to leave their jobs. 

“It is possible that beyond harming one’s physical health, COVID-19 also poses risks to financial well-being,” the study’s authors write.

Within the study, there are a series of limitations that the authors state should be addressed through further research. The first being that 80 per cent of surveyed individuals who reported contracting COVID-19 did so prior to March 2021 when widespread vaccination was not yet available.

Additionally, data on an individual’s severity of symptoms, whether they experienced symptoms of long COVID or how long they were absent from work, was not collected.

The study’s authors write that additional research to assess the impact of vaccination on reports of cognitive failure and how the characteristics of one’s job can impact their performance after contracting COVID-19 needs to be completed.

“Cognitive failures may be an inconvenience for someone performing a low-complexity job, yet this person may still be able to cope with the demands of the job,” the study’s authors write. “On the other hand, cognitive failures may make it more or less impossible to complete highly complex work.”

This could lead individuals who work in a highly complex job to seek other sources of employment, according to the study.

The authors also note that self-reporting could have influenced the results. They speculate that participants could have believed they were experiencing “brain fog” because of the media they were consuming about the virus when in reality, there was no objective change in their performance at work.

Limitations aside, the research proves that the cognitive failures reported in the study were associated with participants’ decreased self-ratings of job performance and willingness to voluntarily resign from work.

James Beck, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study, said these results have important implications for employers.

“Individuals returning to work after contracting COVID-19 may experience difficulties returning to their pre-COVID-19 level of performance, and accommodations may be necessary,” Beck said in a press release. “These accommodations might include reducing workloads, extending deadlines, or providing flexible work arrangements.”