My passion for reducing stress in my workplace is partly selfish: I don’t want to work in a stressful environment because I want to protect my brain from damage.
Learning the damage stress does to the brain gave me great motivation to change my environment for myself, but I’ve also had a number colleagues go off on stress leave, including much younger colleagues who should be in the prime of their lives. I observe the toll stress is already taking on some of them, and I worry about how they’ll be at my age. As a leader, I feel an obligation to take care of them, and from a pragmatic point of view, businesses cannot afford stress-related ill-health. But the work still needs to get done, right? And no employer can control for the stress their employees are experiencing outside work.
Most people understand that stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and that it causes ulcers and heart attacks, but the damage to the brain is much less discussed. The hormones the body releases to enable us to deal with stress are great in small doses, but when we are constantly ‘stressed’, it is harmful. It breaks down connections in the brain – hence symptoms like memory loss and brain fog – and if you’re stressed long enough, it will actually shrink your brain.
The system designed to help us flee a woolly mammoth from time to time is being deployed moment to moment in modern life, day after day. That’s what anxiety is: being in a state of constant stress, We’re simply not built to be running from a woolly mammoth day-in and day-out for months at a time. Having your stress response constantly triggered causes all sorts of health problems.
The good news is that the impact of stress can be reversed. The amazing plasticity of the brain means we can grow new neurons, and re-wire to heal the damage. Simple things like regular exercise, meditation and laughter help generate brain healing. But you can’t heal the brain while you are stressed.
Employers can help their employees reduce stress in a number of ways. Top of the list in my book is recognising that no one can perform at 100% all of the time. We need to plan for peak periods, plan for rest, help keep them in condition.
Practises to promote calm, and to promote ease and joy in the workplace can not only reduce stress, but will ultimately lead to greater productivity and creativity. People produce best when their synapses are firing all over the place, making new connections, opening up new horizons, not withdrawing to the amygdala for a siege. For employers to get the best out of their employees, they need to enable their employees’ to look after their brain health.
Read more about the impact of stress on the brain in Harvard Health
Read Tips for workplace behaviours to reduce work stress