Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Cognitive disability in a knowledge economy world...

About two months ago, I had a grand mal seizure, during which I lost conciousness and fell to the tile floor in my kitchen. I hit my head so hard, my glasses snapped giving me a large gash on my head, injuring my shoulder, and suffering a very serious concussion, and thus a TBI diagnosis.

Upon discharge from the ER, I was given strict instructions to be on cognitive rest. For two weeks I was not to watch TV, read, or use the computer. In fact, I was told to not really do much of anything that required thought. In a world that is constantly connected, online, and in one where I, as a research analyst, am required to spend long periods of my day on the computer, reading and writing... what was I to do?

Once I was out of the two week period, I was told to only gradually increase the amount of computer usage, reading, and thinking I do. Beginning with 2 hours per day for two weeks, then 4 hours per day for two weeks, until I gradually hit the 8 hour/day mark. As a result, my job and I worked out that I would be on medical leave from my work, as it is very difficult to only be in the office 2-4 hours a day.

At any rate, over the past two months I have had extreme difficult concentrating, have not been able to read anything very difficult (I can read a newspaper in print in small chunks before I start to get headaches), and have had difficulty finding words... like refrigerator. This happened on Christmas Eve when my mother asked where she should put some leftover salad and I responded... in the... in the ... thing that you put food in that is cold... My spelling has become atrocious (the spell-checker has had more use lately than ever before); and all in all it has been a frustrating and frankly terrifying few months.

All of this has had me thinking what, exactly, will happen as our knowledge economy grows. The world still has much to learn on the subject of physical disabilities more broadly, but what about those disabilities that one cannot see - that are invisible?  What happens when a colleague, through no fault of their own, experiences lapses in concentration, memory, vocabulary, or even has mood swings as a side effect of medication or even as a result of a disease?  

Our society, in short, is not ready to deal with this fact. When I was in the consulting world I (having been diagnosed with Epilepsy - an invisible disability) worked hard to try to change the culture of the firm, to make it easier for those with similar disabilities to have the work life balance so desperately needed by those trying to manage a chronic condition. I ultimately left the firm as I was no longer able to do the job well, at the level of performance that I desired, without putting my body at physical risk due to the demands of being a consultant.

In a world where everyone is plugged in, and much emphasis is put on cognitive skills, and even more is being researched to try to figure out how people think, what types of programs are being put in place to help knowledge workers who find themselves temporarily or permanently without the facilities of their minds? The answer is none.  Most managerssee many of the above symptoms as signs of an individual not having the discipline to concentrate; or not having proper attention to detail; or just plain laziness.

What, then, should we do?

The first part is raising awareness. The NFL, and football programs nationwide, have begun a conversation about the impact of concussions on athletes - but what about the rest of us? PTSD, and similar disorders, have been written about at length by multiple authors - but what about those of us who experience similar symptoms due to underlying issues?

It is an important issue that requires attention today. At the very least organizations should conduct training for their mangers in invisible disabilities and how to help colleagues who struggle with cognitive issues. Managers should also be willing to embrace alternative work schedules and telework opportunities to help those who work actively to balance the needs of their health with a knowledge workplace. A word of caution however: for those of us who struggle in this area the ability to always be online or have the ability to telework can, in some cases, lead to situations where employees are never truly off the clock. I think managers should be wise to declare email few periods for their teams, be it no email or work on the weekend or taking one night a week to be email free, as Boston Consulting Group has done to great success. (

As we continue to expand our knowledge of how the mind works and how employees think this issue will become ever more prevalent and, hopefully, better understood as people work through the reality of having invisible disabilities and the impact of traumatic brain injury. 

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