Global Prebiotics Week is an important reminder that what we eat and drink play a huge part in both our physical and mental wellbeing.
There is a wealth of information available to us today to inform how our bodies and minds work best, and what we can do to keep ourselves healthy. Admittedly some of the information is conflicting, and some downright wrong, but there is scientific consensus around many areas and yet we do not capitalise enough on this knowledge.
Feuerbach said, ‘we are what we eat’, and we now know this to be very true. So how does this knowledge apply to the world of work?
Well, although the health and wellbeing of employees has increasingly become a priority for employers, the Health and Safety Executive found that in the year 2021 to 2022 the UK was still losing over 17-million working days to work-related stress, depression and anxiety.
Although progressive organizations are implementing initiatives to address workplace factors which are harmful to employees’ mental health, few are focused how we might increase our resilience to these factors. And here there are some basic human needs we can, and should, pay attention to, including sleep, hydration, exercise, rest, and nutrition.
Ignoring these basic needs comes at a high cost to our health – today and in the future – which means that to optimize their wellbeing strategies, organizations should increasingly be promoting the importance of maintaining and improving physical and mental health.
While maintaining of the brain, hydrating of the body, and looking after the health of one’s gut may all sound like knowledge reserved for medical professionals, all these things can have noticeable effects on an employee’s productivity, engagement, and emotional state. And all are inextricably interlinked.
Mental and physical health can no longer be looked at in isolation from each other. For example, your gut health can play a very big role in the health and optimization of the brain – which has a direct effect on your mental health.
This is because all of us have a ‘gut-brain axis’. The two are connected both biochemically (the gut provides around 95% of the body’s serotonin, which controls feelings of happiness and wellbeing), and physically by the vagus nerve which connects more than 100 million nerve cells in the gut lining directly to the brain stem.
Because of this link, scientists have suggested that mental wellbeing is impacted by the health of the gut microbiome – a complex community of trillions of bacteria which and can vary enormously from person to person. And as the health of an individual’s gut biome is directly related to the food and drink we consume, a balanced diet can help maintain mental as well as physical wellbeing.
Just like the gut, the brain needs to be nourished and cared for. If this is done correctly, then this has been proven to help improve energy levels, sharpen focus, reduce brain fog, strengthen memory and keep one’s mood balanced.
One of simplest and most effective ways of supporting our brains each day is through drinking sufficient water. Studies have found that as little as 1-2% body water loss directly affects the brain and can lead to cognitive impairment. Not making time to drink some water when working can quickly start to reduce mental focus and create muddled thinking.
So, what can employers do? Making sure you have fresh water readily available at workplaces is one thing, but we are working in a hybrid world now, so we need to support our employees’ wellness wherever they work.
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive in our ‘always on’, ‘always busy’, ‘do more work with less people’ working lives, employers should be encouraging (or in some organisations they are trying mandating) employees to take adequate breaks to rehydrate, eat and take some rest.
This should be seen as the gold standard if we want a healthy, engaged, energized, and productive workforce. Better for employees, customers, the organization, and society.
If employers seek to understand how to properly support the mind and body health of their employees, then they will be rewarded by employees working at their optimum.
This might start with encouraging ‘nudges’ such as free water bottles, but fundamentally we need to address what we know about basic human needs when designing work.
With Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report finding only 21% of workers are engaged with their work, or feel cared about by their employers, this would be a great time to consider all the benefits that a proactive approach to employee wellness has to offer.
If you would like to speak about this topic in more detail and discuss potential wellbeing strategies, please get in touch with us here!
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020
5. Reduce anxiety
Anxiety is known to be harmful to the brain, but how? Some anxiety is normal in us all, but evidence exists that individuals who experience long term and sustained anxiety are 48% more likely to develop cognitive decline. This is due to cortisol, the stress hormone, which if present over the long-term damages parts of the brain involved in memory and complex thinking.
In 2020/21, depression or anxiety accounted for 50% of all work-related ill health, so focusing on reducing anxiety in the workplace will have huge beneficial effects for employees, the organisation and society. Educating staff around techniques to minimize stress or to ‘reframe’ their perception of stress and make it positive are great ways of helping to reduce angst, as well as offering subscriptions to mental wellness apps such as Calm or great online platforms such as LibratumLife.
However, it is not all up to the employee. Additionally, organisations can help reduce anxiety in their employees by creating a culture of Psychological Safety where people can speak openly; by training and developing Leaders in Emotional Intelligence and encouraging supportive conversations; and by sponsoring employees to become Mental Health First Aiders.
Anxiety and stress are at an all-time high in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, and so now more than ever helping manage anxiety should be a prime focus for employers who want to keep their workforce healthy and reduce burn-out and sickness absence.
6. Keep on Learning
The concept of lifelong learning is one that you may be familiar with. Developing new skills, learning new information and remaining curious can all help towards reducing cognitive decline. Remaining alert and interested in the world around you is one excellent way to keep the neurons in your brain firing and active.
Offering learning and development opportunities in the workplace is a great investment in your people and your business. Whilst it may be tempting to turn off the development tap at times of financial difficulty, it can be a false economy in the longer term.
There have also been many discussions about the efficacy of ‘brain training’. To date, there are many apps and other products which claim to help stave off cognitive decline. The jury is still out with most of these. MyCognition is worth a look as it has been developed in conjunction with the University of Cambridge and with support from the NHS. The best results for any brain training interventions seem to be achieved with regular usage over longer term rather than as a quick fix.
7. Ensure regular mental stimulation
Many researchers believe the key to maintaining a healthy brain is the habit of staying mentally active. This idea of more mental stimulation may seem counter-intuitive to many people already feeling mentally submerged by their current workload. However, the brain responds best to having a variety of different stimuli not just sitting on Virtual meetings or in front of a PC all day.
When thinking about mental stimulation, it can help to think of your brain as a muscle. The more you are exercising it the stronger it gets, but you need to exercise your brain as you would your body, with variety and care.
The efficacy of mental activity is improved by having a variety of different ways to stretch our brain. Making time away from work to listen to music, walk in nature, paint, play chess, or just do a crossword puzzle all stimulates our brains in different ways. Our brains need this variety to feel refreshed.
As employers, we need to be cognisant of this need for stimulation when we plan the activities of our employees. The key is giving a variety of work, giving time for rest, having adequate time to think and plan – these are great ways to ensure optimum brain health, better quality thinking and higher quality output.
Neuroscientists will tell you that the ability to multi-task is a myth as the brain uses a great deal of energy through activity switching, and that focusing on one key activity at a time is the key to quality thinking. Encouraging this kind of focused working, interspersed with rest breaks and time to let your mind wander, creates the optimum conditions for your brain to function.
As an employer, offering access to a variety of stimulating work and work which uses different ways of thinking can be really helpful. Encouraging people to take a real break and think about something else is also vital as this helps improve their brain health and can lead to them returning to their previous work task with a fresher headspace.
8. Actively seek out social contact
Social interaction can have profound effects on your health and longevity. In fact, there is evidence that strong social connections may be just as important as physical activity and a healthy diet. Strong social interactions can help protect your memory and cognitive function in several ways as you age. Research shows that people with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive decline than those who are alone. By contrast, depression, which often goes hand in hand with loneliness, correlates to faster cognitive decline.
Whether you class yourself as an extrovert or an introvert, having a network of people who support and care for you can help lower your stress levels. Additionally, social activities require you to engage several important mental processes, including attention and memory, which can bolster cognition.
Many people find this social contact in their community, their family and friends. But we also spend a great deal of our time working.
We are social animals for whom frequent engagement with others helps strengthen and develop our brain’s neural networks, and this emphasises the importance of promoting a sociable culture in the workplace. For those working in hybrid and remote settings, ensuring that there is time for consistent informal, as well as formal, catch-ups is a way of reducing the feeling of isolation at work.
In summary, the brain is an important organ and needs our support!
How we are working today is often unhealthy for our bodies and our minds and not in keeping with how our brains are designed to run best. We are not super computers and respond badly to being ‘switched on’ for long periods of time and to constant repetitive work which does not offer us a variety of mental stimulation.
But treated right, our brains are far superior to computers in terms of creativity, in imagining that which has not been done yet and in problem solving in the most lateral of ways.
There are many things that employers can do to help their employees maintain healthy brains – and a great place to start is to lead by example. Cognitive decline is not inevitable and making some changes to old habits, as well as incorporating new ones, can pay great dividends in terms of productivity and quality of output at work in the longer term. To discuss how you can begin to incorporate brain health into your organization, or to learn more about Emotional Intelligence Training, Psychological Safety or any of the interventions mentioned in our two part article, please do get in touch with me at email@example.com
Whilst we may focus on maintaining the health of our bodies, we tend to pay less attention (if any) to the health of our brains. Maybe it’s because we cannot actually see how healthy or not our brains are; but helping maintain brain health should be one of the top priorities for employers in order to ensure they have a healthy, high-performing workforce.
Mental health is quite rightly a priority for many employers. That said, many strategies are aimed at fixing issues rather than trying to prevent them in the first place. Brain health is focused on supporting the continued wellness of the brain structure itself – the ‘hardware’. In turn, taking care of the health of our brain ensures great foundations for good mental health by preventing or reducing cognitive decline.
Interestingly, there is still very little known about the brain. We have some idea of how it functions and some ideas about what it needs for optimum health but there is still so much to learn. I describe the mind as the ‘undiscovered country’ – much like the deepest oceans and the furthest reaches of our galaxies.
The fascinating thing about the brain is that we now know that it is not fixed, it is capable of growing new cells (a process called neurogenesis), and so it can consistently benefit from daily stimulation throughout our lives.
We also know that the brain is capable of changing its activities in response to stimuli and that we are capable of learning new things throughout our lives, as well as adapting and changing our thinking to a much greater degree than previously thought. So you can teach an old dog new tricks! The brain’s ability to change its neural networks, to flex and adapt how it operates despite aging, is known as neuroplasticity. Employees in their mid-life are just as valuable and capable as their younger counterparts, so long as they are working in an environment of stimulation and so long as they undertake activities and practices that nourish their brain.
So, on the topic of brain health and nourishment, let me share with you some different ways that you can encourage and support your staff, as well as undertake for yourself, to maintain optimum brain health:
1. Get sufficient sleep
Getting consistent, good-quality sleep is known to improve overall health and prevent cognitive decline. Our bodies rely on a certain amount of regular sleep for a variety of essential functions, many of them in the brain. A study on the relationship between sleep deprivation and cognitive decline found that people who sleep less or more than the recommended seven to eight hours a night exhibited a more noticeable decline than those sleeping 7 hours per night.
As simple as it sounds, employers need to make sure staff are properly rested. Sleep is fundamental for the brain to function properly and will help to massively reduce the risk of burnout. A well-rested employee is 30% more productive and 40% more creative, which means that your overall output will be stronger if your staff are sleeping better.
There are many neurological benefits that come from physical activity, and these include decreased stress levels, increased focus, improved memory and better blood circulation. While people will exercise for a variety of reasons, few people do it with the intent to improve their brain functioning.
Exercise can help ward off cognitive decline, and some studies have shown that engaging in a program of regular exercise improved cognitive function in people who already had memory problems. Exercise may be particularly advantageous for people who carry the APOE4 gene variant, which makes people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.
While exercising, oxygen saturation occurs in areas of the brain associated with rational thinking as well as social, physical, and intellectual performance. Additionally, exercise reduces stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitter chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are known to accelerate information processing.
What is incredible is that you are able to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise:
Even people who engage in smaller forms of exercise, like gardening, are less likely to suffer from age-related neurological conditions. If intense exercise is not for you, gentle exercise can bring your brain a breath of oxygen-rich air. Much of the scientific community agrees that walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints. It is therefore worth considering offering physical health memberships for employees, as keeping staff physically and mentally fit with increase their productivity.
3. Limit your consumption of Alcohol
Balance and moderation are key here. There is some evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One study found that people over the age of 65 who drank up to one alcoholic beverage a day had about half the risk of cognitive decline as non-drinkers over a period of five to seven years.
We do know that a heavy consumption of alcohol can have damaging effects on the body and brain. When a person drinks to excess the liver cannot filter alcohol quickly enough and this can lead to long-lasting effects on the neurotransmitters in the brain, destroying brain cells and shrinking brain tissue.
The precise effect on the brain depends on the individual’s overall health, how much they drink and how well their liver functions. So, whilst the jury is still out on any benefits from light drinking, heavy drinking has definitely been proven to be damaging to the brain.
4. Manage your diet
Although there remains ambiguity around micro-dosing with alcohol, we do know that what you choose to eat can have a great effect on the health of your brain. A Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products, while limiting red meat. This eating pattern has long been recognized as promoting better cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of certain cancers, and there is evidence to suggest that it can also contribute to protecting against cognitive decline.
Recent extensive studies have shown that consumption of oily fish is particularly associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil certainly play important roles in brain function and development. We also need to ensure that we are getting sufficient vitamins B6, B12, and Vitamin E in our diets.
And considering that the brain is circa 60% water, there is also a strong case for keeping ourselves hydrated. If water levels are too low, our brains cannot function effectively and must work harder than normal to complete everyday tasks. Dehydration can lead to confusion, drowsiness and memory loss so staying hydrated is vital. Research has shown that as little as 1% dehydration can negatively affect your mood.
To incorporate these findings into the workplace, it is good to offer balanced, healthy food when at work, as well as having multiple water coolers or means to remain hydrated. Having a vending machine that is filled with healthy snacks as opposed to fatty, sugary foods is a great little change that can be made to help promote healthy snacking.
Tomorrow, we will be posting the second part to this article, which outlines a further four things you can be doing to maintain your brain health.
In the meantime, if you would like to get in touch with me, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The recent rise of what is apparently called ‘quiet quitting’ has sparked the need for organizations to re-examine the modern psychological contract between employer and employee.
‘Quiet quitting’, in terms of working with reduced motivation, has always existed since work first began, and usually resulted in the individual leaving to find a new role that inspired them. However, working less hard while looking for a new role is not the same as consciously setting boundaries around your work in order to have a life – which is what I believe the new ‘phenomenon’ actually represents.
Employers risk falling into the trap of conflating demotivated employees – who are in the process of leaving – with those who love their work but are setting boundaries. And what strikes me the most is that ‘quiet quitting’ is a derogative term which is being used to describe, in many cases, employees doing the job that they were hired to do, for the amount of time they were hired to do it.
It is the younger workers who have been described as igniting this quiet revolution in the workplace, opting to operate broadly within the boundaries of their job and not expanding beyond it if they so choose. If they work certain agreed hours, then they do not expect to be contacted before or after those hours except in exceptional circumstances. If they are given a project beyond their job title, they may choose to politely decline if they do not have the capacity or if they were not contracted to do so.
They value time to live their lives, as well as do their work, and this does not mean they are any less dedicated, talented or that their output is reduced. No one is ‘quitting’ and they should not be accused of such!
They are rejecting the ‘always on’ culture that they have seen work so badly for their parents and older work colleagues. The additional work hours that once were paid as overtime became gradually seen as a badge of honour for the ‘workaholic’, and an expectation by employers as something you had to do if you wanted to ‘get on’ and reach the senior echelons of an organisation. Now with remote working making it possible to work 24/7, working way in excess of your contracted hours has become an expectation that has generated a tidal wave of stress-related mental health issues.
So, why did young people feel the need to push back against the relentless tide of work coming their way?
For one thing, people are working an increasing number of unpaid hours. A global study by ADP Research found that 1 in 10 people work at least 20 extra hours a week unpaid. To add context, they are often working for global organisations which are making millions in profit to give to the shareholders, yet their workers are ‘donating’ swathes of their time for free. Hours being ‘donated’ to organisations by their workers had also doubled in North America, while in the UK, the number of unpaid hours worked in 2021 was equivalent to £27 billion.
The idea of an unpaid overtime-work-ethic has arisen from a toxic mindset that equates commitment and effectiveness with working very long hours and never saying ‘no’. The younger generation are entering into a corporate world with some leaders who believe that giving your ‘all’ to a job (i.e., prioritising your work above everything else in your life including family, friends, hobbies and health) is a good way of measuring productivity and passion.
I believe it is the responsibility of leaders to manage their people resources such that they have sufficient people to deliver what they expect to deliver, not the ‘do more work with less people’ attitude that seems to prevail. Managers also need to support individuals and role model what it means to set boundaries, as well as being alert to when enough is enough.
Knowledge and awareness of the huge impact of overwork and stress on mental and physical health was scarce for previous generations, but we are now much better informed and amongst Gen Z, the stigma attached to discussing wellbeing has largely decreased. And yet, a generation that are more aware of what it means to have a balanced, brain-healthy lifestyle and want to work in a high quality, output-measured way, are having to operate within an outdated working culture.
And so ‘quiet quitting’ was born. Originally starting as a movement in China, ‘quiet quitting’ is a phrase used to describe workers putting in reasonable boundaries between their work and their home time, and rejecting the idea that work has to take over your life. Chinese companies responded by trying to persuade workers that to ‘struggle’ was to achieve a happy life. Younger workers were not convinced.
This is a wake-up call to companies and leaders everywhere, that individuals are deciding that their job cannot consume their entire life. There is both a strong moral and business case for this message needing to be heard:
Morally, companies should not come to rely on the additional cashflow produced through its workers not being paid for the time they are working. This is a fundamental breaking of the work/payment psychological contract. Good resource management does not mean expecting people to work 12 hours but paying them for 8 hours. This ‘discretionary effort’ ethos has got so out of hand that it is no longer the badge of a hardworking and ambitious person, but rather an expectation of all, which is creating a mental health crisis.
In business terms, tired people create tired ideas. Businesses need to recognise that, with the rise of AI taking on repetitive tasks, the next generation of workers will be hired and valued for the quality of their ideas, their innovations, and their thinking. Therefore, we need to work in a way that fosters the best of this thinking. Businesses need to start placing real value on creating environments of mental wellness and brain health, so that they can optimize the best brains and gain a competitive advantage. This is forward-thinking and makes great business sense.
The first steps towards this can be seen in the UK, as the trial for a 4-day working week commenced amongst participating organizations. This was in response to a successful trial in Japan, which found a 40% boost in productivity due to improved wellbeing. A shorter working week acknowledges that a person’s happiness is just as important as their job – having an extra day to indulge in one’s personal life can make all the difference to one’s mental health.
However, there is a fine line to this. As pointed out in the above citation, attempting to cram five days’ worth of work into four can lead to increased feelings of stress and burnout. If companies are shortening the week, they also have a responsibility to decrease the load. It is about playing the long game – productivity will go up despite the loss of a working day because staff will be more rested and motivated. As well as this, their brains will be able to work consistently at an optimal level, creating higher quality output, because they will feel less pressure and have more time to rest.
Henry Ford proved this in 1914 when he upped his workers’ wages and reduced their hours, as well as reducing the work week from 6 to 5 days. Described as a stroke of brilliance, he built a sense of loyalty and pride in his workers and as a result actually boosted productivity.
His son Edsel Ford said, “we believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family”. This seems to have been forgotten in 2022.
The 4-day week suggestion is only one solution. For most businesses currently operating within a five-day working week, it is time to think about shifting the focus from hours being put in, to the work that is being generated. We need to be output-focused whilst being utterly realistic about what any human being can be expected to achieve in the timeframe needed for the desired output.
Neuroscience already informs us what we need to do in order to create optimal brain function. Why do businesses not draw on this wealth of knowledge and create working practices that support this?
Humans are not computers, we cannot operate for hours on end without a marked drop off in our cognitive abilities, as well as a huge decline in our thinking, decision-making and creativity. In the end, overwork and stress can deeply damage mental and physical health, so it is no wonder that younger workers are rejecting this.
As a leader you have the responsibility to hire well, train well and trust your people to do their jobs. Focus on output and quality, whilst being realistic about what a human being can achieve, and resource effectively whilst supporting them to find the best pattern of working to suit their cognitive needs. A study by Harvard Business Review found that managers who were rated the highest at balancing results with relationships saw 62% of employees willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were ‘quiet quitting’.
Leaders who are implementing policies that promote mental wellness and brain health will need to realise that this means re-evaluating the psychological contract that they have with their employees.
For their mental and physical health, and to reverse this epidemic of stress related illness, people need to be able to switch off from work and embrace a personal life. If this is being encouraged by their employers, then these workers will reward their employers with fresh, inspired, and innovative thinking instead of bad decision making and ‘tired ideas’.
If you would like to discuss implementing mental wellness practices in your workplace and developing brain health programs, get in touch with me at email@example.com
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020