There are many types of work that mainly create benefit by thinking, often called desk jobs.

The output is based on the cognitive abilities of the person.
It typically happens in an environment we call office.

A working person has some amount of cognitive abilities. They are certainly multidimensional, but that has no relevance here.

There are things that can reduce these abilities. Some of them are obvious, but it would be interesting to know all that are important for a common desk job. I assume there are not so many of them that this becomes a list question. Many of them are obvious, but I assume there are others.

Obvious are for example:

  • Tiredness
  • External distraction by unrelated activities of others

Some points or classes where it is not obvious are:

  • Maybe some types of mental illness? Major depression seems likely?
  • Possibly external physical influences like freezing?

There are certainly unusual points applying only to few people, for example a person extremely distracted by harsh light. These are interesting, of course, but I mainly think of common things.


One of the most significant factors impairing cognitive abilities in a typical office environment is the noise. It is well-known that quiet environment is essential for good concentration. For instance, WHO recommends school classrooms should have noise level as low as 35 dB during classes. Yet a typical office environment can be as loud as 70 dB, which is about 30-50 times louder.

There are loads of articles describing the effects of different levels of noise on various cognitive abilities, which inevitably show that noise above 60-65 dB has a significant impact on mental activity, and noise above 75 dB has a lasting effect which can be measured 4 hours after the exposure. For reference, most public transport is louder than that, and a subway can be as loud as 95 dB.

It is well known that private offices (which reduce the noise quite a bit) can boost productivity significantly. Unfortunately, they are too pricey, or at least are seen as such, to become widespread.


Your question can only be answered if asked to the fields of human knowledge that deal with humans and their activities: ergonomics, psychology, social sciences, human-computer interaction, etc... There is no one field that may give you a complete list, in my opinion.

So let's think about it together and start with the intrinsic domains that could affect human cognition in the context of the workplace.

  1. Human physical aspects

    • As you mentioned, tiredness
    • Disabilities (e.g. visual impairment)
    • Physical incompatibility (e.g.: person provided with tools and accessories that don't fit their height or size)
    • Debilitating illnesses (e.g.: headaches, colds, etc...)
  2. Human psychological aspects

    • Bias and faulty heuristics
    • Mental illnesses (affecting either mood, thought process or both)
    • Motivational and attitudinal issues (e.g.: the person just hates their job or their job is run by a dictatorial boss)
    • Attentional issues (e.g.: the person is spread too thin or dividing their attention between personal and professional tasks)
    • Lack of knowledge or experience (e.g.: the person doesn't have much to refer back to when they need to process new information. This can lead to bias.)

Now in the frontier between intrinsic and extrinsic aspects:

  1. Human social aspects

    • Once again, bias and faulty heuristics shared by people in the workplace
    • Beliefs and values (this is actually covered by biases)
    • Authorisation issues (e.g.: the person might know how to do something but doesn't have the privileges or authorisation to do a task)
    • Dependency issues (e.g.: a process might need other people or external requirements to be completed: a worker in an assembly line might not be able to do their part until another worker on a previous line finishes their job)
    • Mis-allocation (e.g.: someone is asked to do a job they are not prepared, trained or don't have the experience to do)
    • Faulty or lack of processes (e.g.: people are asked to do stuff without a certain underlying process or order, or their process lacks the necessary steps or contingency for cognitive processes to occur: a programmer is given a two-line brief to start the creation of a software without time to plan or understand the requirements of such)
    • Negative psychological environment (e.g.: an environment that fosters gossip, blaming, bullying and peer-pressure)
    • Office culture (another one covered by biases but it can also be the resulting environment, both psychological and physical, that contributes to and is made of all the aspects we are discussing in this thread)

And the more extrinsic reasons:

  1. Environmental aspects

    • Climate (e.g.: an office that is too hot or too cold)
    • Workplace layout (e.g.: one needs to walk a lot between buildings to consult with colleagues, colleagues are in another country, the office is not open plan, your desk is too small, etc...)
    • Workplace design (e.g.: the room is painted in bright distracting colours or shabbily painted, signage that is not positioned in a visible location, etc...)
    • Noise and pollution (e.g.: certain activities require masks and ear-guards, sometimes offices are so close to the traffic there is a constant hum, air-conditioning noise, etc...)
    • Wrong tools, equipment, and accessories (e.g.: equipment that hasn't been adapted for disabilities or physical characteristics of worker, etc...)
    • Outdated tools, equipment, and accessories (e.g.: a bit like wrong tools but more like that slow computer you have to wait 5 minutes for every operation to go through)
    • Badly designed interfaces and instructions (e.g.: the software or machines required to get the job done have usability and affordance issues, a coffee machine/photocopier that just a few know how to operate, etc...)
    • Local culture (e.g.: foreign language, local customs and behaviours, etc...)

Feel free to edit and add more to the list.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm impressed after reading about 50%... $\endgroup$ – Volker Siegel Nov 8 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ I'm surprised to see you don't explicitly mention bullying and discrimination. $\endgroup$ – some_guy632 Nov 8 at 15:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I thought that would be part of the negative psychological environment @some_guy632, it includes all sorts of anti-social and pathological behaviour. I will add a mention to bullying for now. $\endgroup$ – Luis Morais Nov 8 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Luis Morais Sorry I didn't mean to come across as critical. I upvoted your good answer. I've just been discriminated against very badly on the basis of disability to the point where it still colors all my interactions in every social environment since. I wanted to see it explicitly mentioned in your answer. I'm sorry for being overly critical. $\endgroup$ – some_guy632 Nov 8 at 19:00

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.