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Work isn’t just killing me, it’s making me dumb

Time spent in traffic leads to cognitive decline: Study
Traffic jam in Toronto
Traffic snarls Queen Street in downtown Toronto. While time spent commuting doesn't do wonders for brainpower, there's really no reason to panic about all the dangers of the modern workplace. Reuters

By Todd Humber

If you drive to work, your commute is making you dumb. But I’m not pointing fingers here — it’s also taking a toll on my intelligence, too. Or is it?

See, I’m not quite sure. Because I drive more than one hour to work each way and, according to a recent study, that means my brainpower is slowly being drained.

Academics at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom spent five years looking at the lifestyles of half-a-million Britons from the ages of 37 to 73. They subjected them to intelligence and memory tests, and the results weren’t pretty for folks who spend long hours behind the wheel.

About one in five of the study participants drove more than two to three hours per day. At the start of the study, these 93,000 people had “lower brainpower.” And their cognitive function only declined as the years passed compared to their counterparts who spent little time in traffic.

“Cognitive decline is measureable over five years because it can happen fast in middle-aged and older people,” said Kishan Bakrania, a medical epidemiologist at the university, in an interview with The Sunday Times. “This is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking and bad diet — and now with time spent driving.”

As someone who commutes one hour plus each way to work with hands firmly attached to steering wheel, I find this a tad unsettling.

Pile this on top of all the other stories we’ve written about the dangers lurking in the workplace (at least I can still remember some things) and there’s only one conclusion: My job is, without doubt, killing me.

Sedentary office work is shortening my life expectancy. Which reminds me, I should stand as I’m writing this — but now I can’t reach the keyboard. There’s a dearth of standup workstations around here, and I bet many of you don’t see too many dotting your office landscape either.

The indoor air quality in most workplaces is suspect. Sick Building Syndrome is a real thing. As is Building Related Illness — both have lengthy definitions on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Things like humidification systems, cooling towers, wet surfaces and water damaged building material can cause all sorts of issues including non-scary things like an occasional day off for not feeling well and terrifying ailments like pneumonia and Legionnaires’ disease.

That photocopier and printer you slave over isn’t just producing pretty reports — it’s spewing toxic gases including ozone, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds, radiation, particulate matter, paper particles, nano particles and extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields.

The end result of long-term exposure is “high oxidative stress and systemic inflammation leading to high risk of cardiovascular diseases,” according to an academic study out of Avinashilingam University in India that looked at photocopier operators in that country.

Paper jams don’t sound so bad now, do they?

Your office chair — the same one killing you by being so cushy and comfortable — might also be off gassing chemicals. Same goes for your carpet, and that custodian’s closet jammed full of cleaning supplies and pesticides. And it’s not just what’s happening inside the building that matters. Pollution outside can work its way in — have a highway close by? Enjoy all that rubber particulate coming off tires. In the famed smoggy air of Los Angeles, it’s the 13th most significant source of air pollution.  

Railway in the vicinity? A University of Washington study examined a house located 20 metres from a railway in Seattle found the level of tiny particles to be more than double that of coastal locations far from the train tracks.

And we haven’t even touched on the massive toll of stress and anxiety.

The workplace really is a hypochondriac’s nightmare.

But it shouldn’t be, because it’s time for a reality check. That time you spend commuting behind a wheel? Listen to some news or podcasts on occasion, and you’ll stay engaged and learn a thing or two. Plus, the same researchers found using a computer for a couple of hours per day is just as stimulating as driving is numbing. So it’s really a wash if you’re plugged in during the day. (And for those who take transit to work, don’t get all high and mighty — your television watching habits have the same negative impact. And sitting zoned out on a bus or subway train is hardly any better.)

Your sedentary life? You’re hardly alone — and the jury is out about how much sitting time is too much and whether or not you can cancel it out with exercise and just being out and about.

That air quality? It takes prolonged exposure and exceptionally high doses to have a significant impact.

So take a deep breath. Your job, in all likelihood, isn’t killing you. But I did find one particular bit of research I can fully get behind with this headline in the Independent. “People aged over 40 perform best with a three-day working week, study finds.”

Cognitive performance for older workers tends to max out at 25 hours per week — at that point, fatigue and stress take over. As a 40-something, I can say with authority: That research simply makes too much sense to ignore.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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