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Rules for Your Brain to Live By

While waiting at the Melbourne airport recentIy, I came across an excellent book written by John Medina called Brain Rules: 12 principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work and School. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who, according to his website, “has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organises information.” I do not normally have a particular interest in molecular biology, nor do I usually take to self help books, but this one caught my eye because it explores how the brain works from an everyday perspective, and gives recommendations for optimising our brains in our daily lives. In each chapter, Medina describes a ‘brain rule,’ or something scientists know for a fact about how our brains work, then he offers practical advice and ideas to transform everyday life.

Benefits of Keeping Active

Among the twelve ‘rules’, there were two areas of particular interest for me – stress and exercise, and how they relate to and impact everyday life, especially when working. Taking exercise first, I have always wondered whether there is a direct correlation between exercise and mental alertness. When most of us think about exercise we associate it primarily with keeping fit, general wellbeing, and for a lot of people, weight loss. What I wanted to explore were the potential effects of regular exercise on cognitive learning and alertness.

Today it is widely accepted that there is indeed a direct and positive correlation between regular exercise and cognitive learning and alertness. Countless studies have shown that increased cardiovascular fitness, particularly throughout the ageing process, can have amazing effects on cognitive performance, when active individuals are compared to those who live a more sedentary lifestyle. People who exercise often outperform the couch dwellers in tests that measure long term memory, reasoning, attention span and problem solving in new situations. Clearly there will be individual variation, but there is a large body of scientific evidence that supports the idea that exercise not only reduces the risk of a number of diseases, it can also improve cognitive performance both at home and in the workplace.

How Much is Enough?

Accepting that exercise is good for one’s mental alertness, how can we determine how much physical activity is needed in order to experience the positive effects? People lead busy lives, especially in the corporate world, but studies have shown that the ‘gold standard’ to achieve positive mental effects is aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, as little as two to three times a week. This amount of exercise not only keeps one more alert, it is also shown to reduce the chance of developing dementia, and has a significant negative effect on the chances of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. If more people understood the positive short term effects of exercise on mental alertness, and even the long term effects on the brain’s functionality, a lot more of us might get up off the couch.

In recent years we have seen more businesses starting to take this concept seriously. Medina cites the example of the world’s largest aerospace company, Boeing, as an organisation that has embraced the notion that exercise is good for performance. The company’s problem solving teams were working late nights, until it was decided that all work must be finished during the day to allow for exercise and sleep. This resulted in Boeing teams hitting their targets more regularly, and now more business leaders are taking a serious look at this correlation. Clearly, if prioritising excercise creates more effective teams, which could logically result in a competitive and strategic advantage, we should see more and more companies adopting similar practices.

But What About Stress?

The second topic that has always interested me is stress and how people deal with it, both at home and at work. Research has shown that certain types of stress can be harmful to learning, while other varieties can actually boost performance and learning. Of course, stress is very subjective, and while one type might be harmful to my learning, that same stress might boost your performance. But we do know that when stress is severe and/or prolonged, it starts to harm learning, and the effects can be quite dramatic in terms of everyday activities. Both short and long term memory can be affected, and generalising or adapting old pieces of information to new situations becomes more difficult for those who are under acute or ongoing stress. People who are stressed also tend to have trouble concentrating, and they will often seem distracted.

What Does Neuroscience Say?

Studies by Dr. David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute, which specializes in the application of neuroscience for leadership at work, have detailed the direct impact of various management methods and performance systems on the mental health and productivity of employees. It was found that work stress, especially in a hierarchical relationship, automatically puts our brains in ‘defense mode.’ This means that physiologically our bodies focus on survival mechanisms that make us more alert, in terms of non-thinking or reflex actions, but it will prevent us from seeing the big picture and producing creative/solution driven thoughts.

Stress also attacks the immune system, and studies have shown that this is behind more than half of the 550 million working days lost every year by people on sick leave. This in turn drives up the costs to businesses that are having to pay the individual for the sick leave, and in most cases within multinationals, increased insurance premiums for the following year. If the stress reaches the point where an employee is ‘burnt out’ and must be replaced, recruitment and training costs are also affected. Statistical analyses from many studies form the same dismal picture – stress causes companies to lose between US$200 Billion and US$300 Billion a year, which could equate to as much as US$75 billion of red ink per quarter.

Is all Stress Equal?

John Medina identifies three factors that matter when determining whether a workplace is stressful: the type of stress, a balance between occupational stimulation and boredom, and the state of the employee’s home life. Experts on the subject have spent countless hours trying to determine which types of stress make people less productive, and they all seem to arrive at the same conclusion. Medina explains it as “Control is critical. The perfect storm of occupational stress appears to be a combination of two malignant facts: a) a great deal is expected of you and b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.”

There are innumerable theories on stress reduction, ranging from the downright strange to the particularly useful, but one common theme that runs throughout is that individuals need to have a certain amount of control over their lives. As a Human Resources professional, it is important to find ways to not only look at the performance of your workforce, but also to monitor stress levels, knowing the impact these can have on the individual. HR should be able to detect stress, and to deal with it in a discrete manner, as this can be a sensitive issue. No one wants to be perceived as incapable of dealing with work stress, so having the processes in place to deal with these problems confidentially can go a long way to gaining buy in and loyalty from employees. If handled properly and effectively, this has the potential to improve the organisation’s absentee rate, reduce the number of doctor visits, and hopefully decrease insurance premiums as well. There could be an argument for shifting away from talent management and toward management of employee wellbeing and stress reduction.

I think in conclusion, the key is to take time for yourself, and to keep a healthy body, which will contribute to a healthy mindset when it comes to work. Being mindful of the kinds of stress that can improve performance, as well as the typ
es that have a negative effect, provides a framework for analysing the workplace. Excercising, keeping your emotions in check, and handling stress through effective communication at work will go a long way to providing the work life balance that we are all craving.

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