On December 22, 2018, the longest government shutdown in American history began. Approximately 800,000 employees have been affected with roughly 380,000 workers being furloughed and another 420,000 working without pay. Many of the 420,000 employees being required to work without pay make important, and often split-second, life or death decisions.
This includes the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and air traffic control, to name a few. While these employees are attempting to focus on their job (without pay), they are also pondering how to pay their rent or mortgage and whether to buy food, medicine, or gas.
With each passing day and missed paycheck, the shutdown is causing increased stress and anxiety. It creeps into the workers’ consciousness whether they like it or not.
From a brain science perspective, the likelihood of a major accident increases significantly every day mission-critical government workers are required to perform their jobs without pay, and with no clear indication of when their next paycheck will arrive.
Brain Science for Routine Behavior
From a brain science perspective, the effects of stress on decision making are well understood. Well-established, routine behaviors such as swabbing luggage for bomb-making material or maintaining buoys and lighthouses is only moderately affected. Behaviors such as these are learned and initiated by the behavioral skills system in the brain that encompasses the basal ganglia, and is best learned and performed without “overthinking it.”
Situational Awareness Is Weakened By Shutdown-Driven Stress
However, cognitive processes and to a higher degree situational awareness are seriously hampered by shutdown-driven stress. Cognitive processing such as routing planes in flight and maintaining defense readiness in ports and on the oceans is strongly affected. Cognitive processing involves the cognitive skills system in the brain that recruits the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes and relies heavily on working memory and attention. Stress and anxiety engage emotion centers in the brain that appropriate cognitive resources (working memory and attention) from the task at hand.
Situational awareness is especially affected by shutdown-driven stress. Situational awareness involves effectively processing and comprehending the situation around you, and projecting the future state. Situational awareness relies on cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills systems in the brain and involves knowing “what to do, when.” Situational awareness is critical to Coast Guard, TSA and air traffic control operations because these operations require constant diligence to effectively evaluate the current and future situations that often require split-second decisions and projections into the future. It is this ability to “think on one’s feet” and to make the right split-second decision that is at serious risk when these employees are attempting work and simultaneously deal with the stress and anxiety of going unpaid.
With each passing day the likelihood of a major accident increases. Critical decision-making centers in the brain that are central to the mission of the Coast Guard, TSA, and air traffic control are operating at sub-optimal levels because shutdown-driven stress and anxiety are holding important cognitive and situational awareness processes hostage. This is only going to get worse. Putting politics aside, and focusing exclusively on the psychological and brain science of decision-making, the only solution is to end the shutdown and allow these workers to do their job with pay, and with their full brain processing capacity focused on the job.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Todd Maddox, Ph.D. has more than 200 published articles, 10,000 citings, and $10 million in external research funding in his 25+ years researching the brain basis of behavior. Maddox is available for comment on this topic and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org