Here come the supertaskers

New technologies and social media are training up the next generation of superbrains, but are young

Young people today are dangerously self-obsessed, over-cosseted and computer-addled - or so the media would have us believe. Recent science stories seem to confirm popular concerns about the feckless brains of Generation Whatever (to use the latest label). But we are not getting the whole story.

On 29 May, British newspapers rushed to report on a study by Sara Konrath, a University of Michigan researcher, showing that current college students are lacking in empathy compared to their predecessors. The study concludes that "college kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy". The biggest fall came after the year 2000 - the advent of mass connectivity - according to the survey of 14,000 personality tests over the past three decades. Konrath says that modern students are far less likely to agree with lines such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me".

Presenting their findings on 27 May, Konrath and her colleague Edward O'Brien told the US Association for Psychological Science that the rise of social media seemed to be a factor: "The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems - a behaviour that could carry over offline." Thus, "many people", Konrath said, "see the current group of college students as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and indivi­dualistic in recent history".

It is a popular impression. Not only is Generation Whatever accused of unprecedented selfishness, but we are told that it is getting increasingly stupid. Again, technology is blamed. In June, for example, a Duke University study found that having home computers and broadband lowers students' scores in reading and maths - particularly if they don't have the sort of middle-class parents who nag them to lay off the messaging and gaming.

Techy teens

But are these concerns new? "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words . . . and impatient of restraint." That was the poet Hesiod in the 8th century BC.

The human basics may have changed very little - but that does not make headlines. In March, the British media ignored a University of Western Ontario study of 477,380 high-school seniors in 1976 and 2006, which found that Generation Whatever looks very similar to youth from the mid-1970s. The main difference, said the study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that the new generation of young people has higher expectations of its education and is less trustful of government. So perhaps it cares more.

Jeroen Boschma, creative director of the advertising firm Keesie, based in Rotterdam, believes as much. He told the Spanish newspaper El País the story of how he interviewed a 17-year-old for a job and asked him a tough technical question to see how he would react. The candidate did not know the answer, but requested a minute to find out, consulted an online forum and got more than 100 informed responses from across the world.

In 2006, Boschma published the book Generation Einstein: Smarter, Faster and More Socially Aware, to loud media buzz. He believes that rapid-paced technology has imbued these so-called "digital natives" with new qualities: they challenge authority and are highly pragmatic in dealing with information. "This sets them apart from any other generation and has consequences that are by no means trivial."

Certainly, young people are politically engaged on a scale unseen since the 1960s, thanks to their ability to clamber on to the internet's global soapbox. For example, when Farouk Olu Aregbe, a recent graduate in the US, set up the One Million Strong for Obama Facebook group, it rapidly gained 820,000 members. And in Britain, pressure from a 5,000-strong Facebook group forced HSBC to stop charging interest on graduates' overdrafts.

The laptop revolutionaries can also be altruistic. Twitter and Facebook were still primarily driven by college students when these networks overwhelmed the Red Cross with millions of texted $10 gifts to Haitian earthquake relief. Digital networking, far from merely fostering passivity, has created a generation that can engage vigorously and fast. Empathy has not disappeared - it is simply taking different forms.

And it's not just empathy that is changing. The idea that the human population is developing a different kind of intelligence is another common idea. Studies by James Flynn, a professor of political studies at Otago University, New Zealand, who specialises in measuring intelligence, show a consistent rise in global IQ performance of roughly 3 per cent per decade, in some cases going back to the early 20th century. This implies that, over the past 100 years, the IQs of people (predominantly in the west) have risen by about 30 points, an observation known as the "Flynn effect".

Flynn believes that our brains have changed in recent decades because TV, computers and social networking challenge the brain in new ways and for far longer periods of time. Those challenges are developing quickly. The plotlines for The Wire are infinitely more complex than those of, say, The Good Life in the 1970s. Games such as Civilization IV re-create human economic and technological history, challenging teens to work out whether they should develop an agrarian capitalist society or a monarchy.

But Flynn argues that his "effect" does not show a genetic increase in intelligence per se. It is the product of a bias in IQ tests towards abstract-reasoning intelligence. Our brains are becoming more creative, but this is perhaps at the cost of older, everyday skills.

This theory is echoed by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. He believes the generation that has grown up using computers is having a harder time reading social cues. "Even though [they] are very good with the tech skills, they are weak with the face-to-face human contact skills," he told the New York Times in April.

Such shifts in consciousness are not without peril. Two recently published studies - by the University of California and the University of Southern California - indicate that our constant diet of digital news is beginning to move faster than our ability to make moral judgements. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering and war are consumed but may not make us indignant, compassionate or inspired.

Yet there is evidence, too, that the human brain is advancing its ability to sift informa-tion quickly. We appear to be evolving rapidly under pressure from unprecedented demands, using evolutionary mechanisms we are just beginning to understand. One is called epigenetics - a frontier science that is revealing how the changes we experience in our brains during our lives do not simply go to the grave with us, but can be passed on to our offspring.

Scientists are also discovering that the brain retains high levels of plasticity throughout our lives, particularly if we keep challenging it with new learning.

Speed-freaks

Tomorrow's people may already be buzzing away among us. They will include the "supertaskers". For most of us, multitasking is tough. Trials show that it tends to result in two things done poorly rather than one done well. But one in 40 people appears immune to this problem. These lucky speed-freaks can, for example, drive and talk on a mobile phone at the same time without loss of concentration on either task, according to tests on 200 people by the Utah University psychologist Jason Watson.

Supertaskers constitute only 2.5 per cent of the population, Watson believes. But even that level is surprisingly high. "According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," he says in a paper soon to be published by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Further research into supertaskers may reveal how the multitasking regions of their brains are different, due to some inherited variation. Watson predicts that employers in high-performance professions will want to screen for genetic markers of supertasking ability. Generation Whatever's multi-mediated brains may be the key to our ever-faster future.

But even in a hyper-accelerated culture, someone is going to have to pay close attention to socially indispensable matters such as law, politics, academia and medicine - disciplines that demand conscientiousness and a gimlet eye for mono-tasking detail. Old-brainers, the over-thirties, aren't out of business yet. So we should not be so snippy about welcoming the children of the network-minded generation, even if we don't understand their ways.

John Naish is the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask