March 2016 Newsletter:

Objectively Quantifying Cognitive Demands

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It is estimated that one in five Canadians suffers from some mental health illness (e.g. anxiety, depression) each year. As it pertains to the Canadian workplace, these mental health illnesses represent nearly 30% of all short- and long-term disability claims as well as approximately $6 billion in lost productivity costs from absenteeism and presenteeism (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013).

With greater awareness towards mental health, employers have an important obligation to provide their employees with accommodations and modified work for a mental health disability, not only a physical limitation. Traditionally, companies have devoted time and energy to completing Physical Demands Analyses (PDA) to identify and quantify the physical requirements of a job, including things like posture, mobility, and strength. However, with the increased frequency and attention to mental illness, companies may now want to start incorporating a Cognitive Demands Assessment (CDA) as part of their accommodation process.

That said, it can be relatively straight forward to quantify physical elements of a job (i.e. we can weigh an object to know it’s 12 kg. and determine that it is lifted 10 times per hour from the floor to waist height to describe the strength requirements of a job).   In taking these measurements and frequencies, we have effectively, and more importantly, objectively, determined the frequency, force, and postures of the task, which are then used to determine potential physical accommodations for this job.

It is less simple however, to go about objectively assessing the cognitive demands of a job.  These can include a wide array of abilities such as: short and long term memory, communication, reading, writing, and critical thinking.  Due to the complex nature of the abilities and that you cannot visually see when the cognitive skills are occurring, it is harder to measure and properly quantify each skill.

Where to Start?

It is important to exercise objectivity from start to finish when completing a CDA to truly draw out the cognitive requirements of the job. To do so, remember that there is a plethora of information that must be collected for such an assessment, and we should begin be gaining a thorough understanding of the job. Understanding the steps required for each task, including the time spent completing them, the tools used (if any), the communication required with coworkers and supervisors, and any problems they may encounter are all essential in gaining objectivity.  All of this data is going to be obtained through interviews with the employee and supervisor as well as viewing the job in action.  Each of these will give you a great opportunity to ask detailed questions to better understand the nuances of each part of the process.  Once we understand the processes, we can start to document which tasks require which skills and determine approximately how frequently the tasks occur and with what complexity (i.e. verbal communication with others occurs primarily on the telephone for approximately 2 hours per day and the conversations are typically troubleshooting various IT issues).

As the world becomes more aware of the costly effects of working with mental illnesses, the need for CDAs becomes increasingly necessary so that objective accommodations can also be made. Consider ‘getting ahead of the curve’ and proactively starting to complete CDAs as part of your Return to Work process.  Being proactive can save time and money when a cognitive accommodation is required as accommodations can be quickly made based on already gathered, objective, data.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2013). Making the case for investing in mental health in Canada.
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