Imposter syndrome has sadly been a popular term going around recently. After having to navigate working through a pandemic and now adapting to the new normal of hybrid and remote work, many employers and employees have found themselves feeling somewhat out of their depth. A YouGov survey of 2,500 UK workers found imposter syndrome to be one of the most common mental health issues in the contemporary workplace, with nearly three in five (58%) of employees experiencing it. Similarly, a study in the US found that 65% of professionals suffered from imposter syndrome. The prevalence of this feeling in today’s world means that this is no longer something that we should label as a problem predominantly facing women.

But where do these feelings stem from? And how can employers aid those who find themselves questioning whether they deserve to be in their position?

Feeling like an imposter can be brought on by a number of things, but these can be filed under two main factors – internal and external.

Internal imposter syndrome is in reference to those who suffer from anxiety and self-doubt, sometimes on a debilitating level, that is triggered by the individual’s internalized stories. They will lack the confidence to speak up because they are constantly second-guessing themselves and their capability, and this mindset can fester and grow as time goes on. Often times, it will be newer hires who have fallen short or made a mistake upon starting, and in their attempt to be mentally tough and analyse what they did wrong, they can end up planting a seed of doubt that blooms over time.

External imposter syndrome examines the environment someone is entering. Many employers will look at hiring more diverse candidates to bring in new and fresh perspectives, but these candidates can find themselves feeling like imposters if they are entering into a culture that has been set in its ways for a while and they repeatedly find themselves being ‘shut down’. In this sense, this is a sign that the culture needs to begin evolving to incorporate new ways of thinking so that everyone can benefit from it.

Regardless of what has provoked these feelings, a growth mindset approach to both can help tremendously with combatting this ideology of self-doubt. If its internal, leaders can coach their employees who are suffering, or refer them to an external coach, who can help to recalibrate the way they perceive themselves and their capabilities – spinning the idea on its head to go from, ‘why don’t I know this’ to ‘I don’t know this yet, what can I do to accelerate my learning and development in this area? ’. The label ‘imposter’ can be a harmful one and carries heavy connotations that are not usually applicable – you are not an imposter if you don’t know how to do everything, and that’s completely fine. It can be as simple as reminding staff that they were hired for a reason, so they have already earned their place at the table. Another great way of getting this across is by regular acknowledgment of contribution and feedback – reassurance from those that work above you can go a very long way.

This same logic can be applied to external imposter syndrome. If you have hired someone to bring in a fresh perspective on a new market, for example, then naturally their ideas are going to vary. To avoid making them feel alienated from the get-go, you can explore ways to allow for new ideas to be brought forward. A few ideas include:

  • Asking all members of the team to brainstorm new options, perhaps anonymously to remove any element of bias.
  • Use de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats.
  • Or be inspired by Julia Dahr’s TED Talk that encourages us to learn from debate tactics!

This also allows time for the culture to organically adapt to changes.

It's important for any employer to recognise that anyone who finds themselves in a new position – regardless of their hierarchical position – may begin to feel like an imposter of sorts. If you ensure that you have an inclusive culture that encourages communication, then employees will feel comfortable in seeking some support for the way they are feeling. Having coached many executives who have experienced these feelings of doubt, I know first-hand how important it is to address this before it becomes embedded. If you need further guidance on how to approach imposter syndrome in your workplace, you can get in touch with me at anya@orgshakers.com

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

Remote work seems to be here to stay. And if that is the case, then so are the burgeoning social challenges that accompany it.

As it stands, around 14% of UK workers are exclusively remote, with nearly double that proportion in the US at 26%. And what seems to be emerging is a growing sense of loneliness and isolation amongst these workers, as well as a significant lack of social interaction.

A survey by Statista found that after at-home distractions, a lack of social interaction with colleagues and feeling isolated/lonely were tied as the second highest challenge of remote work, with 35% of respondents citing either as their main struggle.

If you delve deeper, it also becomes apparent that these issues are affecting younger workers more severely. Chargifi did a study across the UK and the US and found that 81% of those aged under 35 would feel more isolated without time in the office, and 70% of them fear missing out on opportunities to socialise if remote work becomes the permanent norm.

If the new normal is remote work, then this requires organizations to push the boundaries of what that really means and help employees find innovative ways to solve these feelings of isolation.

Here are some creative ways employers can encourage their remote workers to get the social interaction they need:

  • Public Outdoor Spaces

This is a weather-dependant option, but it is well known that getting some fresh air has many physical and mental health benefits, including giving your brain more energy and making your thinking sharper. Public parks, gardens and beaches are all lovely days out, but there’s no reason why someone can’t set up their laptop and work surrounded by like-minded nature lovers and the sound soothing waves and beautiful blooms.

  • Pubs/Bars/Cafes  

This is one of the most popular options. There is always a lively ambience in a pub or café, and many people find working in these environments much more mentally stimulating. This is largely due to the psychological effect known as social facilitation, in which a person’s performance will improve due to being in the presence of other people. For UK employers, encouraging your remote workers to set up shop in a Wetherspoons could benefit them financially, as the chain offers free refills on tea and coffee all day, and will help ease the effects of cost of living by saving on electricity usage.

  • Airports/Train Stations

A slightly unconventional place, but perfect when looking at the social facilitation effect mentioned above. The hustling and bustling of people can actually help, with ‘background noise’ known to improve cognitive function and focus. And the constant sea of new faces can reduce an individual’s feelings of isolation.

  • Fast Food Restaurants

Across both the UK and the US, the beauty of fast-food restaurants during typical working hours are that they tend not to be too loud, they offer free WiFi, and have affordable lunch options. Whether it is burgers, tacos, or fried chicken, being in an environment with other people can make someone feel less alone.

  • Coworking Spaces

Coworking spaces are becoming an increasingly popular option for companies that are fully remote. These comprise of office spaces that can be rented, where your staff will work alongside remote workers from other organizations and have the opportunity to interact and build relationships. It allows for the ‘office feel’ without having to actually rent an entire office block, so it is cost effective and will likely increase the wellbeing of your workers. Alternatively, encouraging employees to set up remote working hubs with friends who also work remotely allows for them to create small, sub-cultures at work where they are surrounded by friendly faces and can stimulate their socialising needs.

Remote work can very easily become lonely, and if employers are adept in responding to this then they can continue to reap the financial and wellness benefits it has to offer. As a company that operates fully remotely, we are experts in offering in-depth guidance on how to mitigate the challenges that remote work can bring, so for strategic guidance on this topic, you can 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.

Final thoughts…

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 pamela@orgshakers.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.

2. Exercise

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:

  • For concentration: yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
  • For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
  • To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming);
  • For stress and anxiety: yoga;
  • For depression: aerobic and resistance training.

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 pamela@orgshakers.com

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