Auditing is a knowledge-based profession, which means its practitioners have to think for a living. We work extensively with data, requiring significant concentration and focus. We evaluate the effectiveness of business operations, necessitating an ability to analyze and problem-solve. Our capacity to perform these activities effectively hinges not only on our expertise, but on how we take care of ourselves.
The way we treat our bodies affects the chemicals in our brain, which in turn affects the performance of our minds. Without a strong and healthy mind, everything becomes more difficult — working with spreadsheets, performing analytics, communicating with clients, and so on. Even with extensive knowledge of audit standards and robust technical skills, a weak mind inevitably will affect audit effectiveness. For this reason, internal auditors may want to consider several wellness habits that could help fortify the mind and enhance work performance.
Improve Focus and Concentration
Today's world presents a host of distractions — social media, emails, text messages, reminder notifications — that compromise our ability to focus. We have a "need to know now" tendency, where every notification chime or pop-up banner prompts an immediate screen check. But if we don't check Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram during the day — are we really missing anything important? Would the world come to an end if we didn't respond to emails right away? If someone had a truly urgent request or need, wouldn't a phone call likely accompany the emails or texts?
According to a 2017 OfficeTeam survey of U.S. organizations, office employees spend about five hours each week on their cellphone focused on nonwork activities such as answering personal emails and checking social media accounts. Succumbing to distractions breaks one's concentration. Plus, valuable time and energy can be lost trying to get back into the flow of the previous task. These little distractions add up and over time negatively affect our budgets, project delivery, and work quality. An auditor's attention is already divided — working on different engagements, across multiple audit sections, with different directors and staff members — and the pressure to deliver can be intense. Introducing unnecessary distractions only makes it harder. Turning off the smartphone, or at least minimizing screen time, can go a long way toward maintaining one's attention on tasks at hand.
Still, no one is born knowing how to focus. And the workplace is full of interruptions beyond our mobile devices. Co-worker drop-bys, impromptu meetings, Slack messages, and last-minute requests are part of most auditors' daily reality. Over time, these constant demands and interruptions take a toll on our attention span.
Sustained focus is achieved through practice and deliberate actions. One form of focus training that has gained significant attention in recent years is daily meditation.
According to a 2018 article in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, "Regular and intensive meditation sessions over the course of a lifetime could help a person remain attentive and focused well into old age." Researchers came to this conclusion based on results of one of the most extensive longitudinal studies examining a group of meditation practitioners. Beyond enhanced focus and concentration, studies also point to stress and anxiety reduction, improved emotional health, enhanced self-awareness, better sleep, and decreased blood pressure as benefits of regular meditation practice. Taking a daily, restorative mental break could help enhance overall well-being and improve readiness for whatever lies ahead.
To keep up with the demands of their work, internal auditors must be able to learn quickly. Auditors do not have the luxury of spending years learning and understanding all the various facets of an organization or department. Practitioners need every advantage they can muster to help tackle what is often a steep learning curve. That requires agility and critical thinking, including the ability to apply past experience to new assignments and to find connections across different parts of the business. Without these skills, problems such as budget overruns and failure to provide timely deliverables are more likely to occur.
One way of increasing mental agility and learning capacity is through physical exercise. According to a 2014 study conducted by the University of British Columbia, regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus — the area of the brain connected to verbal memory and learning. Other research has shown benefits of exercise to include better alertness, attention, and motivation. While exercise may sometimes feel like a drain on one's already busy schedule, the benefits of adding it to a daily or weekly routine can easily outweigh the cost of time it takes to perform.
According to the book Fatigue Science of Human Health, co-edited by fatigue science expert Yasuyoshi Watanabe, "Mental fatigue caused by prolonged mental work not only [results in] an increase in sensation of fatigue, but also a decrease in work efficiency." Auditors can easily suffer from mental fatigue during busy season, or while working on a large project with several moving parts and a hard deadline. Fatigue can present itself in the form of drowsiness, decreased motivation, irritability, and distraction. The symptoms not only slow down our work, but could lead to errors in judgement, inaccurate interpretation of information, and loss of valuable time and money.
One way to battle brain fatigue is by maintaining a healthy diet. According to an article by neurosurgery professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla on Brainfacts.org, "Because the brain demands such high amounts of energy, the foods we consume greatly affect brain function." Food provides fuel for performance, but not all food is good for the body and mind. In fact, some foods actually reduce energy and can damage mental health and functioning. A 2018 Healthline article, "7 Foods That Drain Your Energy," lists the following culprits: bread and pasta; cereal and yogurts; alcohol; coffee; energy drinks; fried and fast foods; and low-calorie snacks, which can reduce energy levels.
By contrast, many foods can serve to boost brain health and improve cognitive functioning. In its article, "Foods Linked to Better Brain Power," Harvard Medical School includes green, leafy vegetables, fatty fish, berries, and walnuts among a list of "best brain foods." So when mid-afternoon fatigue sets in during a critical audit engagement, practitioners may want to put down the sugary sweets in favor of these healthier, brain-friendly alternatives.
Of course, what really sets the stage for mental alertness each day is what happens the night before — the amount of sleep a person gets. In a 2015 Scientific American article, John Peever, director of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Toronto, and Brian J. Murray, director the sleep laboratory of Sunny Health Center, described the function of sleep in this way: "Sleep serves to reenergize the body cells, clear waste from the brain, and support memory and learning." Research from the National Sleep Foundation indicates that adults need between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Staying up late to binge-watch online content or catch up on social media has consequences. After working a long day, auditors should consider what their brain needs for the following days' work.
Effective audit performance starts from within. Making healthy lifestyle choices can provide a solid foundation for any practitioner's well-being and ability to succeed. As research shows, maintaining a healthy body and mind is key to optimal performance.