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Do Face Masks Turn You Into a Slacker at Work?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
New study shows face masks do not impair mental and motor skills.

A new study determines whether face masks impair performance while working.


The Face Mask Problem Continues

It’s been months now, and resistance to wearing face masks to help stop the spread of the coronavirus persists in spite of new research showing that wearing a face mask does make a difference. One of the most contentious of arguments has been that wearing a mask is actually putting people's health at risk—which has been disproven.

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Face Masks and Worker Performance Study

However, another argument against wearing a face mask that has garnered enough interest to merit a study is that wearing a face mask impairs performance in the workplace. In other words, if your boss accuses you of being a slacker, could you put some of the blame on having to wear a face mask?

You can try, but a new study pokes holes in this anti-mask argument.

A news release from the University Of Copenhagen cites a new study conducted by researchers at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen in collaboration with the European research consortium 'HEAT-SHIELD' report, with their findings when face masks and worker performance are put to the test while at rest and while working under increased heat and humidity.

According to the news release,

Facemasks are mandatory by law in many countries and recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent spreading of the COVID-19 virus. However, experts and lay people alike have raised concerns that working with a facemask may aggravate heat stress, thermal discomfort and increase perceived breathlessness (dyspnea)—which eventually could impair cognitive function, concentration and jeopardize occupational safety.

The 'HEAT-SHIELD' report is part of a Horizon 2020 research project dedicated to address the negative impact of increased workplace heat stress on the health and productivity of five strategic European industries that includes manufacturing, construction, transportation, tourism and agriculture.

In the study, 8 healthy, active males, aged 27-41 were put to the test under two separate conditions of both not wearing a mask and wearing a mask while at a resting stare and while under a relatively vigorous activity state.

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The study participants were placed in a climatic chamber regulated at 40°C (104 degrees F) and 20% humidity for 30 minutes to become accustomed to the testing conditions. After which, they were instructed to exercise for 45 minutes at an intensity that simulates occupations with manual work.

The news release states that during the tests, “…physiological, perceptual (thermal comfort and breathlessness) and motor-cognitive measurements (consisting of four different computer tasks relying on math ability and fine motor precision) were taken immediately before and after the bout of exercise.”

What the results showed was that the only measure worsened by wearing a mask was feelings of breathlessness.

"We utilized an experimental set-up that mimics tasks completed in many occupations and a protocol previously used to explore how heat-stress and dehydration markedly impair performance in tasks relying on the ability to concentrate and conduct complex motor-cognitive tasks. Although prolonged exposure with facemasks while wearing normal work-wear in a thermal stressing environment elevated thermal discomfort in both trials, it did not lower scores in any of the motor-cognitive tasks that the participants completed. Indeed, the only measure worsened by wearing a mask was feelings of breathlessness."

The researchers concluded that facemasks do not directly impair concentration or indicators of cognitive performance—but acknowledge face masks may restrict physically demanding work when the restraint on respiration becomes an issue.

What This Means

Basically, the study only shows that wearing a face mask is not impeding oxygen transfer to the lungs, which the brain requires at near-optimal concentrations to perform at your mental best. However, is this a true test of performance at work? Possibly not.

There’s a psychological toll of wearing a face mask—it’s the new monkey on our backs that will not be leaving us anytime soon. Couple that with the constant fogging of glasses and constant sweating and dampness of a masked water-boarding sensation, and it’s little wonder that emotions are heightened and we are all stressed both at work and in public.

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Perhaps all of us should cut each other some slack when it comes to face mask issues—whether you believe in wearing one or not—and try to reach an understanding that can bring some semblance of harmony back to our society and a solution that our political system has failed to achieve. Masks saves lives, but will they save humanity?

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

References:Facemask use has lesser consequences on indicators of cognitive performance than expected” Faculty Of Science - University Of Copenhagen news release 7 Oct. 2020.