Brain Health and Workplace Performance

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Although there’s a lot of evidence that brain health is improved when a mind remains active and challenged; increasingly, research shows that mental downtime is even more important. In his article in Scientific American, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, Ferris Jabr writes:

Brain Health by Dan Century, Flikr

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. “

Some research suggests the brain’s ability to make sense of a situation and arrive at a decision is enhanced by meditation or even a simple nap. According to Dr. Ed. Zimney,

“A daytime nap will produce nearly as much skill-memory enhancement as a whole night of sleep.”

A stretch of downtime increases the brain’s ability to retain information by allowing time for it to be absorbed and integrated into mental databanks.

What Your Brain Needs to Perform

In spite of this research, most workplaces are unlikely to include an afternoon nap among stated HR policies. Employers, however, would do well to think about how downtime supports overall brain health and improves mental performance. Since even a short power nap has incredible restorative powers, maybe it’s time to swap out the afternoon coffee break?

Of course, the healthy brain needs more than downtime. According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, our brains must regularly experience seven different states to perform optimally. Ideally, we would engage in each of these activities daily:

  1. Deep Focus:  Time spent focusing deeply on a complex problem or project.
  2. Connecting Time: Time spent connecting to people around us, nature or the world outside.
  3. Down Time: Time spent zoning out or doing activities that don’t require active thought so the mind can wander and reflect. 
  4. Time In: Time spent journaling, meditating, thinking deep thoughts or sharing them with a loved one—anything that allows us to think deeply.
  5. Play Time: Time spent laughing, enjoying time with friends or playing with children.
  6. Physical Time: Time spent in physical activity. Brain health and mental performance improve greatly when we exercise. One recent study from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that “people who exercised during their workday were 23 percent more productive on those days than they were when they didn't exercise.”
  7. Sleep: Time spent in deep sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep is important for storing memories and restoring the brain; while lack of sleep impairs reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail. With 30% of American workers being sleep deprived, the implications for performance and productivity are significant.

Keeping Your Head in the Game at Work

Admittedly, it may not be possible to support all seven of these mental activities in the workplace. What we can do, though, is use this knowledge about brain health to help keep everyone at work in a better state of mind (literally!) for a mutually beneficial outcome. When we do, employees experience less stress and anxiety and employers benefit from improved productivity and performance.

Here are a just few things that can turn any workplace into a better head space:

  1. Make taking breaks and using up vacation time the norm.
  2. Ensure that employees are not reprimanded for having an afternoon power nap in place of a break.
  3. Vary the type of work each employee works on—daily if possible. Encourage a mix of rote work and focus work.
  4. Provide spaces and opportunities for connection during the work day and encourage employees to build their networks
  5. Implement a fitness challenge.
  6. Install standing or walking desks.
  7. Integrate fun and laughter into the work environment.
  8. If possible, implement a “disconnect from work after hours” policy.

It’s interesting to note that work in general is considered good for brain health. Even more so if that work is purposeful and engaging. So taking the extra step to design work and work environments that actively promote better brain health just makes sense; especially with the growing awareness of the connection between brain health and performance

 

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