It is widely accepted that a happier, healthier workforce is a more productive, efficient workforce.
Yet increasingly the media paints a picture of a reality at odds with this; the Office of National Statistics has highlighted Britain’s poor productivity compared with other leading western economies.
Stress is flourishing in high-pressure workplaces such as law firms, banks, and financial services companies. Work-life balance is becoming increasingly stressful for fathers, as well as mothers. Londoners put in some of the longest hours in Europe and recent research found that women in London are working 75 hours more per year compared to the rest of the UK’s female workforce.
Yet juxtaposed with this is the clear evidence which indicates that flexible-working arrangements and shorter hours can improve productivity.
The message is clear, but something is getting lost in translation.
Fear of change from the top
Employee-friendly policies such as working from home and no emails in the evenings or on weekends are becoming more commonplace. Yet workers remain as stressed as ever.
One potential explanation for this is the fact that those at the top tend to be older and view work differently to the increasingly millennial workforce beneath them, no matter what the science says.
The pace of change in the 21st century is increasingly rapid, yet our brains often view change as a threat. The pressures of modern life can mean that we don’t have enough time to think, and end up relying too heavily on our brain’s ability to fill in the gaps and revert to our “safe-zone” of bias. This fear of change, combined with frenetic work schedules, can mean that it is all too easy to stick to the norm. Yet in a rapidly changing world, it has never been more important to be able to adapt to new ways of thinking.
Leading by example at the executive level will pave the way for a shift in attitudes, so as younger workers climb the ranks we can surely expect to see less of a divide between boardroom and office floor. Executives can also train the brain to respond more positively to change, using techniques such as visualisation, and so overcome fears of implementing forward-thinking policies.
Culture v. policy
However perhaps the issue is in fact one of culture, rather than policy. In an age of constant connectivity and information bombardment, we have become culturally addicted to being “in the loop”. Emails, Facebook likes and Twitter notifications all provide our brains with a hit of the “reward” chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and motivation, and also with learning and memory. Our brains learn to crave distraction.
Further, it can be hard to be the one to break the mould. If your boss and colleagues are all staying late, despite what the company handbook says, our “herd instinct” mentality can contribute to making us want to feel part of the group. The neurochemical oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, is released in the brain when we engage in social behaviour. It stems from our survival technique of finding safety in numbers, and it makes us feel good.
There are simple things we can do to better embrace cultural change. The science behind using mindfulness as a tool to give us breathing space is clear. The pre-frontal cortex – often thought of as our “executive” or “management” centre – helps us organise and plan our actions and is critical for motivating, controlling and moderating our behaviour. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day enables it to work better, helping us to regulate emotions, solve complex problems, think flexibly and overcome bias and fear.
Ultimately, if we want to improve our work-life balance we need a fresh attitude to brain health and mental wellbeing. Company policy is a great starting point, but implementing small changes on an individual level can have a huge impact on the quality of our time away from the office.
About the author
Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information. Tara is the only top-tier leadership coach with both a PhD in neuroscience and former medical career as a psychiatrist. Educated at Oxford University and King’s College London, her role as Senior Lecturer at MIT ensures that she remains at the forefront of the latest developments in her sector.
Find out more about Tara here.
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