Episode 1: Cognitive Endurance

20 April 2023

In this episode, we tackle cognitive endurance which has recently emerged as a priority for all employers across all industries. We discuss the enormous performance and productivity pressures for boards and executives at the individual and organisational level, and most importantly, what can be done to maximise cognitive endurance.

Our guests for today's episode are Dr Erin Quinane, Head of Cognitive Health at Ashurst Jamie Ng, our global head of consulting at Ashurst, and James Hewitt, who is a former elite cyclist and now high performance and endurance scientist whose clients have included top-ranked sports teams and Fortune 500 companies.

For more information on the Ashurst Cognitive endurance program, please get in touch with Erin.

The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.


Dr Erin Quinane:
At Ashurst, we acknowledge First Nations peoples as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work in Australia and pay our respects to their elders past and present. We extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples listening today. Hello and welcome to Ashurst Business Agenda. My name is Dr. Erin Quinane, and I'm head of cognitive endurance at Ashurst. This is the first episode of our miniseries about trends in workplace health and safety. In this episode, we tackle cognitive endurance which has recently emerged as a priority for all employers across all industries. We discuss the enormous performance and productivity pressures for boards and executives at the individual and organisational level, and most importantly, what can be done to maximise cognitive endurance. Our guests for today's episode is Jamie Ng, our global head of consulting at Ashurst, and James Hewitt, who is a former professional cyclist and now high performance and endurance scientist whose clients have included top-ranked sports teams and Fortune 500 companies. Here's our discussion.

Jamie Ng:
Some listeners might be thinking to themselves why is a law firm helping senior executives build cognitive endurance and high performance of work, and it's a very good question. Perhaps if we can start a bit of a discussion actually about why Ashurst establish this risk advisory business in the first place, and I think very simply we wanted to be the easiest and most logical first call that clients could make when they are faced with a crisis or some high-impact event where access to expertise was paramount, and we found that the combination, after speaking with clients, the combination of legal and risk advice packaged up together in an integrated way, there was a gap in the market there, particularly around certain types of really important, significant events in involving our clients. So, that led to the legal-led consulting approach that it has framed the entire business and actually has led quite substantially to its success.

If we turn to cognitive of performance and how this all fits together, so cognitive performance, particularly enduring performance in the context of quite an increasingly complex business environment, we believe that is absolutely crucial to the success of our clients, and if we think about what we've all been through the past couple of years, wildfires, bushfires, pandemics, floods, climate chaos, war, both cyber and fighting, it's clear that we need executives operating at their best in order to navigate these high-impact events effectively. Our job is to really support clients in navigating that complexity, as I said, informed by law regulation and risk management perspectives. So, within that framing, we saw it only natural to be looking at extending the capability to offer clients a service that would ensure executives are operating at optimal performance levels at the best of their ability in order to effectively deal with these really high-impact events for their success.

So, there are clearly also linkages to where we see modern governments, directors' duties, work health and safety, and ultimately the future of work going as well. And so, as a firm that offers integrated legal and risk capability and operates globally, I think we felt we had a really interesting perspective to bring, and that has helped to shape the design of the programme, and also, it really enabled us to access some of the best minds in the performance space, James included, of course. Erin, you've probably got some thoughts on this as well. Do you want to give you perspectives on why clients should choose Ashurst for this programme?

Dr Erin Quinane:
Yeah, thank you, Jamie. When we look at Australia's work health and safety legislation and it imposes duties on offices and executives, and to your point, Jamie, to demonstrate due diligence that they're proactively managing not only physical risk, but now psychological safety at work. We know that traditionally, the focus has been on physical safety, but in the last few years, that focus has shifted considerably to the need for officers and executives being able to equally demonstrate that psychological due diligence. And so, we know that it's critical for boards and for senior executives to understand that psychological due diligence is a moving target, and it's one that can be far more complex than physical safety and physical due diligence.

So, for example, if we look at the psychological risk profile of any organisation, it can actually change multiple times a year unlike physical safety can. A trip hazard can be a trip hazard and it can exist for 12 months. But when we look at psychological safety and we look at how that can change, an organisation may be about to embark on a major project that really is high risk, there's high job demands, there's sustained cognitive endurance and effort and pressure. That can bring psychological risk. We could also then maybe be having major organisational change and transformation happening in another part of the organisation. That can bring in psychological risk. It is a constantly moving target, and I think what's important for boards and for senior executives to also understand is that psychological risk can vary significantly between business units.

So, if we looked at the airline industry, for example, the psychological risks that airline pilot face versus the risks that the accounting team faces in the same organisation is really different. They have different work pressures and different cognitive endurance demands as well. But we know that there are still too few officers and directors, executives, that when we look at the legal-led consulting piece of it is that helping them to actually better ask the questions what are the reasonably foreseeable psychological risks in my industry and organisation, how does my organisation mitigate the impact on individuals on those work demands, those cognitive endurance demands, and what can I do to ensure that my organization's risk management framework appropriately accounts for that. And so, through the Ashurst Global Cognitive Endurance Programme, we provide boards and senior executives with a proportionate, sustainable, and defensible approach to demonstrating psychological due diligence, and we do it at the individual level, and we also do it at the organisational level.

Jamie Ng:
I think I love what you said there about complexity and how the profile changes day by day. Some of the examples you gave there like planning for, for instance, an M and A transaction, that may have been something that's in the works for some time, but equally, at any point in time, you might have some unexpected event hit the organisation, that also has to be addressed. So, yeah, that certainly resonates for it strongly and would be reflective, I guess, of the interactions that we're having with our clients day to day in relation to those sorts of events, whether planned or otherwise. James, from your perspective, why do you think a law firm is a good fit for working with clients to understand how to build and nurture the psychological health for themselves and workers?

James Hewitt:
Well, thanks. I think that's a really good question. I mean, my background is working with a lot of different organisations, mainly very cognitively demanding organisations. So, management consultants, law firms, the finance sector, people also in some other domains like Formula One, for example, and Formula One teams. And so, I think that law firms are really well placed to share these kind of insights into this kind of content for a couple of different reasons. I think, one, obviously, it's about the client demands, which you've articulated I think very well. The clients that you're working with, particularly in a risk advisory context, are likely to be experiencing significant challenges which actually could compromise their cognitive performance just when they need to perform at their cognitive best.

For example, we know that when we get stressed, sometimes we're vulnerable to what's sometimes characterised as an amygdala hijack. The part of the brain that is responsible for the kind of stress and fear and emotion processing can sometimes overtake that rational part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and if you look at other domains, you mentioned aviation already, there's a whole training process to make sure that when people are under pressure, when something goes wrong, they're able to maintain that rational. Kahneman, Daniel Kahneman calls it the system one, the system two, sorry, the slow thinking logical of part of their brain.

But actually if we think about outside of these what would typically be characterised as high-risk settings, for knowledge workers, for a CEO or other C-suite executive, for example, there isn't really a training programme to help you to deal with that kind of pressure and make sure that you can think rationally and carefully when you're facing all kinds of risks and threats. So, I think there's definitely a niche and actually being a legal firm that's dealing with people perhaps in the middle of these kind of challenges, I think really makes legal firms like Ashurst very well placed to serve this kind of content and insights and training.

But secondly, I think that, ideally, good law is about translating deep complexity and making it simple and understandable and actionable for the client, and unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, but ideally, I think it does, and this domain of cognitive performance, cognitive endurance is complex. We're gathering scientific insights from all kinds of different scientific domains and trying to distil that down into something that will be really practical and useful. So, I think the skillset at Ashurst of people who are very good at distilling that kind of complexity, making it actionable, again, makes it very well placed. So, when you first think about it might seem like quite an unusual idea, but actually, as you break it down and certainly as I've got to know this programme a bit better, I actually think that there's a really good match there.

Jamie Ng:
Outside of aviation, where have you seen other good examples of the need to translate the complex into the simple in order to help people to manage these really significant cognitive loads in really demanding environments?

James Hewitt:
Well, I think I worked with a management consulting firm that was obviously a very high-pressure situation, a lot of growth, a lot of clients globally, a lot of if not travel during the pandemic, Zoom calls at all kinds of times of the day and night, which I imagine many people can relate to, and it's interesting because obviously I was dealing with very competent, capable people, very well educated, and actually, a lot of the time, people who knew what they needed to do, but, but they weren't necessarily putting it into practise.

And so, one of the challenges that I've seen in many high-performing organisations is what I call the attention paradox. It's the people who need to pay attention the most are often the most at risk of distraction, and that often means that the things that they know they need to pay attention to and direct their energy towards often end up falling by the wayside because they get caught in this cycle of continuous kind of doing which obviously is necessary, but there's rarely an opportunity to take a step back and really think about where their effort is going to be best expanded for impact today, but also sustainable impact.

So, one of the things that was very effective was to create a programme to create an opportunity for people to actually take a step back, really think about how they were working and how they were thinking at a very fundamental level, and start to put into practise some of the things that they know they should do, so around looking at how they could sleep more adequately, for example, how they might be able to actually integrate exercise into their day in a way that was sustainable so it didn't just become four brilliant weeks at the beginning of the year when they got a new gym membership, and then nothing else. We also looked at things like nutrition and how could you start to eat healthily, a little bit healthier, both for your fitness and your wellbeing, but also if your cognitive performance too, and also think about how you could do that when you're travelling. Obviously, that hasn't happened much over the last couple of years, but it's really starting to pick up again now.

And actually, we saw some really interesting results, and one of the reasons being that we also included some wearable device measurement in that programme, as I know we're going to talk about, I think, today as well, to provide an objective feedback loop to complement the people's perception of how much better they felt as well, and we saw some great results, people reporting fewer experiences of unhelpful levels of stress, but also decreased physiological stress as indicated by a measure called heart rate variability, which I'd be happy to dig into if that's of interest, and people reporting as well that they felt that they were able to perform better.

I also did a similar project with another similar firm or group of firms actually where I measured cognitive performance objectively. I used an assessment that was originally designed for deployment in a military context with tactical operators in forward operating positions. They used a smartphone to measure their cognitive performance, and we saw some objective improvements in cognitive performance associated with, in particular, people who were starting to sleep adequately, and by that, I mean at least seven hours per night, and that might come as a shock to some people that that seems to be the threshold. When we don't hit that seven hours, we get all kinds of bad things happen cognitively, physically, with our mood, as I'm sure many of us have experienced.

So, I guess in answer to your question, I've seen this work well where people actually make a commitment to take a step back from their day to day life, think about applying some of the things that their grandma probably told them to do, eat well, exercise regularly, and get a good night's sleep, but then actually use some objective measures to actually determine whether this is working. And I think that's often key because unfortunately, when we're in a very challenging situation where there's a lot of threats and risks and we're starting to get distracted and we're not paying attention to the right things, we can sometimes fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that all this good advice applies to someone else and somehow we're immune. But unfortunately, I think as we see in the workplace with massively increasing rates of burnout, depression, people having to step away from of jobs which they used to find really meaningful because they just, they can't cope anymore because they just can't sustain it.

Unfortunately, I think too often, we're not applying these principles. We're not measuring what works, and we're paying the price, but it doesn't have to be that way, and I've certainly seen in the data and people's experience that it's possible to perform at your best more sustainably to achieve that cognitive endurance that you're talking about.

Jamie Ng:
That's so true, James, what you're saying, and particularly this point about how actually many of the things we can do are quite simple, yet, for some reason, we don't do them well, and I guess in that context, Erin, how are we going to be helping boards and senior executives to really understand and demonstrate this sustainable and defensible approach to the cognitive health of the executives.

Dr Erin Quinane:
Yeah, thank you, Jamie, and it's why in our programme, it is grounded in scientific evidence but with practical application. We knew that we need to put a convincing argument forward to boards and to senior executives to convince them on why it is absolutely critical to manage not only their own cognitive endurance and peak performance, but how they do that at an organisational level for their workforce, and to go back to the point earlier around being able to provide a defensible, proportionate, and sustainable response to psychological due diligence. And so, for us, grounding it in scientific evidence, putting for forward that burning platform, and creating and giving them practical solutions and recommendations to act is absolutely core to our programme and being able to convince them to want to go on that journey and to do that.

James Hewitt:
I think that's a great point, Erin, and I think I've seen several motivations for people joining programmes like this, and for some people it really is that burning platform. They know they're close to the edge, they've got to change something. But I think even if people don't feel that they're really close to the edge, I think most of us would really like, or most of us really like the idea that we'd be able to maintain our current level of performance, but perhaps increase the margin we have available to us. One of the characteristics that I've seen consistently in very high performers and senior executives is they always get the job done, but it's just the question of how much is that going to cost them personally, and in terms of effort.

That proposal or that project or that deal is going to get landed, is going to get sent, but how hard is it going to be, how much suffering is going to be required to actually get there. I think there's some principles in this programme that could anybody to increase that margin because instead of having to deliver in and it taking 95 or 98 or even 99% of your capacity, suddenly, it takes 85. In that 15% margin, maybe that's available to respond to the unexpected. When something flies across your desk that you didn't anticipate that you need to respond to really quickly, it means that you can respond to that and you can absorb it without it tipping you over into that red zone that 105% that really starts to take a significant toll on our wellbeing and our performance.

But also, it might be that you spend that 15% somewhere else. Maybe it's about relationships, it's people in your family or in your friendship group that you want to spend a bit more time and it means that end of the day, when someone wants to have a conversation with you, you feel you've got that capacity to engage in it because you've not been pushing right to the limit throughout the entire work day. So, I think I'm always careful to kind of characterise that or recognise the difference in people's motivations for joining this programme because generally, I find that people are doing a great job, but it's not always clear what's going on behind the scenes, and that some people, it's actually about continuing to do that great job, but just increasing that margin, creating a bit more bandwidth or other things and the unexpected, whatever that might be.

Jamie Ng:
Now seems like a good time to dig a little deeper into the Ashurst Global Cognitive Endurance Programme. Erin, would you like to kick us off?

Dr Erin Quinane:
Yeah, thank you, Jamie. We are incredibly excited and passionate about delivering this programme to our clients. As we discussed at the start, we know that every executive is facing a multitude of strategic challenges, and we discuss some of those including global labour shortages, how do they attract and retain top talent, we've talked about cyber. These challenges though are not an of-the-moment issue. We know that they will persist over the next three to five years, and it will bring enormous cognitive endurance pressures for senior executives and at the individual and organisational level, as I said. For executives, traditional business school doesn't teach you how to perform, how to perform at an endurance level, at a peak performance level. Traditional business school teaches us the principles of our discipline, our domain, how to be a good leader, but the world at the moment is becoming far more complex and far more challenging, and every executive is in that always-on mindset and has to perform.

So, knowing that, we know as well that few boards and CEOs, they rarely stop to ask themselves three fundamental questions which is, is my C-suite training for peak cognitive endurance, are the next top 10% of my executives training for and maintaining cognitive endurance, and finally, what can I do as the CEO to maximise the cognitive endurance of my top executives and also redefine their readiness for perennial change.

And so, to find the answer to those questions, as part of our programme, we've partnered with the world's best universities, proudly, five of the top 10 universities across the United States. We've got three of the top 10 universities across the UK, as well as Europe, but we've also incorporated elite premiership coaches, athletes, as well as our former Australian Chief of Army, one of our most decorated fighter jet pilots, and of course, James Hewitt here who's our human performance and scientist expert, but we wanted to work with these global programme partners and we've fused together, really excitingly that has not been done anywhere in the world, fusing together the fields of leadership of organisational strategy, work health and safety, neuroscience, physiology, but also technology to really help boards and senior executives understand how build and maintain peak cognitive endurance and performance at work.

As part of our programme and working with such a phenomenal group of nearly 30 global experts is that we wanted our clients to hear directly from them. We want our clients to directly engage with them just as we are with James today and to be able to put forward a global point of view. And so, we take our clients through this programme, and I'm actually going to throw over to James to actually talk you through firsthand what his role in the Ashurst Cognitive Endurance Programme is.

James Ng:
Thanks, Erin. Well, it's a real privilege to be part of this programme. There's such a great group of experts on this programme, and as we've been planning out, I feel like I've learned at least as much, if not more, as I've been able to contribute. But my specific contribution really focuses on two very tactical areas, and so one of those is looking at the role of exercise and physical activity on cognitive performance, and the second one focuses on nutrition and cognitive performance. We often think about exercise and nutrition in terms of the long-term benefits. So, for example, it's very clear that if you remain physically active, you maintain your physical fitness, that's associated with long-term brain health. You are less likely to experience the cognitive decline that is associated with old age or certainly you'll experience less of it.

Similarly, with nutrition, good nutrition, adequate quality nutrition is also associated with better brain health as we age, but particularly in the context of exercise and cognitive performance, there's also some acute benefits. So, that means we can experience a really short-term cognitive performance boost if we use exercise in place at the right time and particularly at the right intensity. And so, one of the things I'm going to dig into in the programme is how you can use exercise as a cognitive performance enhancing tactic. So, thinking about, for example, the timing of exercise to improve your long-term memory. So, think about when you needed to exercise, if you were trying to remember a speech or a presentation that you needed to give, but also how you can use exercise to make it more likely that you're going to be able to recall all the information more effectively, more easily on the day, and actually the intensity and the timing of the exercise plays a significant role in that, and some really interesting research that we can operationalize to help you to put that into practise.

Nutrition wise, we do look at the role of nutrition and long-term brain health because that's actually the primary effect, but we'll also look at some acute effects and some of the things that you can do to boost your performance in the short-term. For example, you can think about how you can use one of the most effective nutritional cognitive performance enhancers more effectively, caffeine. I'm sure a lot of people use caffeine. Most people don't realise that they're often overusing it to get the performance enhancing benefits that they're looking for and that can interrupt their sleep, for example, and I know that's going to be another domain that another expert is going to be speaking about, but I'll be really drilling into that, looking at cognitive performance and exercise, cognitive performance and nutrition.

I'll also be playing a role in helping the participants understand their wearable data. So, there's a wearable component to this programme. We're going to be using a device to measure things like sleep, people's exercise, but also some of these physiological metrics, and I mentioned heart rate variability during the podcast. You can think heart rate variability as a kind of global indicator of your readiness to perform physically and even cognitively. I don't know how deeply you want me to go into this now, but in short, you can think about heart rate variability as an indication that your nervous system is ready to adapt. High heart rate variability indicates that what's called the parasympathetic nervous system, that's your rest and digest nervous system is able to apply the brake on that sympathetic fight or flight nervous system in just the right place at just the right time with just the right amount of pressure on that metaphorical brake pedal.

And so, we'll be using that metric to see how, when you start to put some of these ideas into practise, is it having a positive effect on improving your ability to adapt and respond both physically and cognitively, and so the wearable device provides a really helpful tool to do that. But there's also a journal feature that we'll be using. So, as you start to introduce these behaviours, you'll actually get a measure of whether that's trending towards the positive or maybe the negative or the neutral, but also how other habits during your everyday life are having an effect on your physiology. So, for example, if you're using too much caffeine more than you need to enhance your cognitive performance, is that having a negative effect on your sleep and recovery, or perhaps maybe changing meal timing might have a positive effect.

So you can think about the programme as kind of a personal experiment, and I'm also going to be doing some coaching in the programme, and I'll kind of be your guide on that personal experiment as you start to take some of these ideas from all of these experts, put them into practise, and then use this wearable feedback loop to start to figure out what's really working for you.

Dr Erin Quinane:
Thanks, James. That's absolutely brilliant, and it really does provide our listeners with great examples of the practical application of evidence-based science into the programme as well. And as James said, a really important part of our programme too is that we personalise it to our clients. One executive's physiology versus the executive sitting next to him could be entirely different, and so part of our programme too is looking at how do you build and maintain peak performance through a completely different lens. So, rather than rolling out the standard workplace and leadership high-performance programmes, part of our programme is really looking at an individual level what is the physiology makeup, but what is that cognitive health makeup of that particular individual, why does that executive make the decisions that they make, why is it that they have better working memory and emotion regulation than the executive sitting next to them.

And so, by understanding and helping our clients, our executives see how does their brain individually work at its best, that's where we can improve their individual performance while also still equally balancing what does that mean at an organisational level, but it's a really great example that James provided of it's a really tailored approach to the individual which is a core part of our programme. We are unbelievably excited to be working with clients in this space and bringing a completely new approach and take to it. So, James, it's an absolute pleasure to have you on the programme sharing a little bit about your skills and experience with us and point of view.

James Hewitt:
Thank you. It's a real privilege.

Dr Erin Quinane:
Thank you for listening to this podcast episode in our miniseries about workplace health and safety trends. As you've just heard, workplace health and safety has become increasingly complex. There are multiple legal issues and risks to manage which can have a direct impact on leaders, their people, and their organization's productivity. If you would like to discuss how such legal and risk issues impact your organisation, please feel free to get in touch with me, Dr. Erin Quinane. My contact details will be in the show notes of this podcast. This episode is the latest in Ashurst's Business Agenda podcast. To find out more about our podcasts, head over to www.ashurst.com/podcasts. To ensure you don't miss any future episodes, subscribe to this podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast platform, and while you're there, check out our other episodes, and feel free to leave a rating or review. Thanks again for listening and goodbye for now.

Speaker 4:
If you enjoy Ashurst Business Agenda, why not check out our other two podcast series as well? Ashurst Legal Outlook explains the emerging legal trends and requirements of our fast-changing world, and ESG Matters at Ashurst reveals how business leaders are rising to mounting environmental, social, and governance challenges. You can listen and subscribe to Legal Outlook and ESG Matters wherever you get your podcasts.

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The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.