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How cognitive hygiene influences our career

19/01/2021 2021/01

Interview with ARTS organizational coach Katja Hermann

Prof. Dr. Nico Rose shows this week with his article - mentally healthy we are not if we don't have a disease. The last two weeks we have been looking at mental health in everyday work and in the home office. Our tips and tricks are a good start. But we also want our experts to have their say in our series on cognitive hygiene. We can expect different perspectives on the topic. 

We start with Katja Herrmann. She is our professional with a heart. Her focus is on career development. As a trained systemic organizational coach, she has learned to fathom and recognize the needs of her fellow human beings even more profoundly.

Hi Katja, a few quick questions to get you introduced and help our readers to get to know you a bit better.

When you were a kid/teenager, what was it like? Gameboy or tablet?

My brother and I had a GameBoy (at about age 9) and a NES.

Walkman or Mp3 player?

I entered the technical world as a child with a cassette player (#BibiBlockbergrulez).

Playing outside or sitting in front of the computer?

I grew up in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, the family lives together within a radius of 10km and the kids hang out together from elementary school to graduation. :-) It just happened to go out, build booths in the woods (to the annoyance of the foresters and farmers) and later to create the first parties together in the garages.

Thank you, I was able to recognize a lot of that. We are talking about cognitive hygiene today. What does cognitive hygiene mean to you?

I look at the principle like a glass with water. Where the glass metaphorically represents the head (i.e. cognitive performance) and the water symbolizes external impulses. If the glass is filled to the brim with water, e.g. due to multitasking, shift work or other stressors, no more drops will fit into the glass. So it is up to everyone to always have enough water in the glass so that new water can be refilled and old water can be dumped. Everyone is responsible for their own cognitive relief or balance.

A beautiful image with the water glass. What to do when you are stuck in this glass in a whirlpool of negative thoughts?

I advise against brooding. Continuing to think about such issues does not provide relief. The simplest remedy is interruptions. By saying "stop" out loud or turning on the light (if it happens at night in bed), getting up, going out, are the simplest and most practical means. Afterwards, distraction helps not to fall back within 10 minutes and to create distance to the whirlpool of thoughts for the time being. In the long run, however, only reflection and professional confrontation with the root of the problem will help. For this, I recommend coaching sessions or professional accompaniment through therapy, should this pattern occur more often or over a long period of time or due to deeper-lying experiences in one's own biography.

What do you think it takes to stay mentally healthy?

For me these are 3 essential points.

  1. Perceiving (feeling) and taking seriously (addressing and not dismissing as "not important") stress factors. 
  2. Shedding light on the defined issues and coming up with solution options.
  3. Getting help if you are not making progress or have "no good gut feeling".

Do you also have directly applicable, everyday tips that you give your clients for cognitive hygiene, e.g. in the home office?

Self-management is a big topic here. Every person can take responsibility for themselves and their performance. Concrete tips:

Do I know my goals, do I know what I am doing my activities for?

Questioning helps to get back on the performing path to the goal. Knowing your goals is important to motivate yourself. Team leaders or supervisors can provide assistance in case of ambiguity.

Am I sure about the processes?

If the goal is clear, the roadmap to it is the means to be designed. Processes provide a guideline or framework that can be used to act safely and quickly. These are often informal and run in the background, but a framework is always present. In case of ambiguity, team leaders or superiors, but also colleagues on the same hierarchical level, can provide assistance, as they often know the most effective way to achieve goals through their professional experience.

Can I use my own resources effectively? - Do I need help or support?

Goals and processes often seem "overwhelming" or "too big" at first. It is worthwhile to invest time and "roll them up". It is often small many steps (in the process description) that create security again and make the "big picture" more realistic. Reflection on one's own strengths and weaknesses is also important for this. If you are not a numbers person, it makes no sense to check budgeting or to take on controlling topics. Other colleagues can certainly help. On the other hand, you might be very extroverted and like to take over a customer reception. This also takes the pressure off mentally and sends a signal to the team: "I need help from you. In return, I'm happy to help them with projects that suit me well."

In addition, structure also helps: it pays to start each day in a structured way. Tips: 

  1. Block out fixed appointments and keep to them; appropriate preparation can shorten them, which in turn saves time.
  2. Set breaks and keep them, breaks are donated time that can be used for mental hygiene. Mental Hygiene: Mindfulness exercises are very refreshing and activating tools that take very little time.
  3. Activate networking, online meeting rooms for lunch or a coffee break out room are common ways to stay in touch with colleagues and their current projects.

And always reflect. Simple questions include. 

  1. Is what I am doing valuable to me?
  2. Am I achieving the goal with my approach?
  3. Am I being effective with what I am doing? 
  4. Can someone help me if I get stuck?
Katja Herrmann is a systemic organizational coach from ARTS
Katja Hermann reports on cognitive hygiene in the in terms of career.
Katja Hermann reports on cognitive hygiene in the in terms of career.

You've already touched on individual things, but what do you think companies can do for their employees in terms of mental health?

Managers can give their employees an overview of their own performance through reflection meetings. The background is to ask the question: Is what you are doing effective and meaningful in achieving goals. Of course, this presupposes that goals exist and are known. Providing rooms for "silent work" is effective but not always practical. Alternatively, home office arrangements are adequate means. For manufacturing companies, employee conversations to filter out the issues that depress colleagues are the simplest tools. Close networking with the people who are necessary for service delivery also requires a human component for interaction.

Perhaps to conclude, let's talk about you again briefly. How do you manage to recharge your batteries?

I've created a private retreat with my partner and my cat that catches me, helps me work through my worries and hardships, and gives me energy when big projects come up. We have a deal that when we get home, we're off work. Smartphones are turned off and operational professional topics are taboo. Instead, we have time with colleagues when we're "on the clock." Emotional stories that have occurred during the day, however, are of course often discussed and examined from a different angle. This helps me to tip some water out of my glass in order to remain open to fresh impulses.

Mental health also includes a certain form of enjoyment. What is enjoyment for you and how can you learn it?

When I do something with great pleasure, when it fulfills me and I don't want to think about anything else, then I feel pleasure. For example, when cooking with my partner.

In my opinion, you "learn" enjoyment by realizing what fulfills you. I would describe it more as a sensation than a conscious learning. Every person knows best what he likes and what gives him pleasure. And what he enjoys accordingly.

And how do you deal with problems yourself?

I discuss issues that weigh me down with my partner. His point of view is complementary to mine. Accordingly, there are overlaps and deviations but fewer blind spots. 

One last question, what are wishes in terms of cognitive hygiene for your clients?

I wish for my clients to be more resilient in stressful situations. External stressors make us react unfocused from time to time and we lose sight of what is beautiful. The glass then literally overflows with water.  

Stepping out of the situation for a moment, taking a deep breath and asking ourselves: "What is happening right now?

Thank you very much for these interesting insights and tips. Next week, we'll take a sporty approach. We are looking forward to the tips from our sports therapist Daniel Nehring.

One last question: What is your water level in the glass today?

Download: How cognitive hygiene influences our career

About the Author
Katja Herrmann | Organisational & HR Consulting
Katja Lösche
HRaaS & Development Consultant

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