Working in a dull, unclean work environment may have negative implications for employees’ long-term cognitive health, according to a new study.

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Researchers say clean, stimulating workplaces are important to employees’ cognitive health.

Lead researcher Joseph Grzywacz, the Norejane Hendrickson Professor of Family and Child Sciences at Florida State University, and colleagues publish their findings in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

When it comes to memory and thinking skills, previous research has shown that a person’s occupation may play an important role.

One study published in 2014, for example, found that job burnout – that is, physical, emotional, or mental occupational exhaustion – can lead to later-life deficits in cognitive function.

According to Grzywacz and colleagues, some studies have also suggested that working in a dirty environment can impact long-term cognitive functioning, while others have indicated that brain health may suffer as a result of an unstimulating workplace.

However, the team notes that there has been debate over which factor can have the biggest impact on cognitive health: a dirty or dull workplace? The new study suggests both may play an important role.

The researchers analyzed data of 4,963 adults (53 percent female) aged 32-84 years who were part of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.

Occupational information was gathered from the participants, including their employment status, place of work, job complexity, physical hazards in the workplace, and workplace conditions – such as cleanliness.

The cognitive function of the participants was assessed using the Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone (BTACT), which tested their episodic memory, self-perceived memory, and executive functioning.

The researchers found that men and women who worked in unclean working environments – that is, employees who were exposed to mold, solvents, and other chemicals at work – were more likely to experience cognitive decline than those not exposed to such work environments.

Specifically, employees who worked in dirty environments were found to have poorer episodic memory – the ability to remember events, such as times and places – and executive functioning – the ability to control and use higher-level cognitive skills.

Furthermore, the study revealed that employees with greater occupational complexity – the opportunity to learn new skills and take up new challenges – had better cognitive function than those with unstimulating jobs. This association was strongest for women.

Adults with stimulating jobs experienced better executive functioning, episodic memory, and self-perceived memory.

Overall, the researchers say their findings highlight the importance of stimulating, clean work environments for employees.

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.”

Joseph Grzywacz

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