Home' HR Monthly : September 2015 Contents 34
IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It
is made up of 100 billion microscopic neurons that control
our every thought, step and breath through chemical and
Together, the brain's neurons generate enough energy to
power a low-wattage light bulb. But when it comes to memory,
some things can cause that light to fade. They include:
• Lack of sleep, which can compromise the brain’s ability to
encode and retrieve information;
• Alcohol abuse;
• A deﬁciency in vitamins such as B1 and B12;
• The side-effects of medications including certain
antidepressants and blood pressure drugs; and
• Stress and anxiety, which can also compromise our ability
We can experience memory lapses at any time, but the
frequency tends to increase as we age. The hippocampus, a
brain region involved in memory formation and retrieval,
often deteriorates as we get older. At the same time, levels of
hormones and proteins that protect our neurons begin
"If you compare the brain of a 90-year-old and a
19-year-old, the older brain will be [comparatively] shrunken,”
says Sydney-based neuroscientist Sarah McKay. “It’s not
because the brain cells are dying. If you imagine a neuron
looking like a tree, the branches – the dendrites that receive
inputs from other neurons – become sparser as we age.”
Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of
a group of illnesses that cause a progressive decline in a
person’s ability to function. Symptoms include loss of memory,
intellect, rationality and social skills, as well as degeneration
of the body's faculties.
While Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia,
other forms of the condition include Lewy body dementia,
which can cause visual hallucinations and extreme confusion.
Vascular dementia, which can be caused by smoking, diabetes
and high blood pressure, is another common form. Its
symptoms can include severe depression, mood swings and
loss of bladder control.
“Dementia is a terminal condition,” Bennett says. “As a
ballpark ﬁgure, it takes roughly 10 years from recognition of
the symptoms until the full progression of the condition. But
that’s variable across individuals and types of dementia.”
they can provide reasonable accommodation to an employee. Firstly,
how does the employee's limitations affect their job performance?
What are the specific tasks that cause the most difficulty? What can
be done to reduce or eliminate those problems? Has the employee
been consulted about solutions they may have? And, once these are
in place, how regularly should there be meetings with the employee
to assess if the solutions are working and whether any additional
support is required? Some of the solutions to memory loss may be
simple and inexpensive.
REMAIN FLEXIBLE: This can include adjusting workplace contact
hours or ensuring an employee has the tools he or she needs to
work from home.
ADJUST TASKS: This can include organising the workday
with a set structure or creating prompts to trigger memory.
An example of the latter would be a written list of the steps
required to complete a specific task that the employee can refer
to throughout the day.
RAISE AWARENESS: Employers should educate employees
about the symptoms of dementia in the workplace. Having clear
policies about how the organisation will support people who
develop the condition will also help.
PROMOTE BRAIN HEALTH AND EXERCISE: Research suggests
frequent engagement in new, social and reasonably complex
activities can help reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Employers should think about initiating activities that promote
social interaction, such as a weekly book club, trivia nights or
Evidence also suggests that physical activity may beneficial.
Alzheimer's Australia recommends encouraging employees to
exercise during the day, whether that's walking during lunch or
riding a bike to work.
"No form of dementia is reversible," Bennett says. "But you
can prolong or delay the progression of the symptoms if you
manage the condition well.
WHAT TO SAY
● I'm concerned about you. Most
health insurance plans cover an
annual physical and some mental
● Do you know about our employee
assistance program? It allows
employees to discuss issues
confidentially and to seek help for
situations or conditions that may be
affecting their home and work life.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
● You're missing meetings and
forgetting tasks. Have you been
checked by a doctor? Do you think you
could have dementia?
● You're not as sharp as you used to
be. Can you still perform the duties of
this job at your age?
● If you don't figure out how to
perform the way you used to, we may
have to let you go.
Courtesy of US Society for Human Resource Management
'Coping with cognitive declines at work'.
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