What I wish I had known about the brain at work when I was an MD.

I managed with intuition, with care and a passion to see my people thrive, but I wish I had known then, what I know now.  The brain at work has become my geeky obsession and in the attached I share 5 things that I wish I had known during my corporate MD life.



1.     Being “always on” doesn’t in fact win brownie points for commitment. It reduces our mental capability to worse than that of someone who is stoned!


Wearing the committed “always on” badge leads to an overwhelmed, exhausted and distracted mind.  Being forced to be “alert” far too much increases our allostatic load, the level of stress hormones. It means our brains think that we are in a constant state of crisis.

The more instantly responsive you are to emails and messages of whatever form, the more people are likely to message you, compounding the problem.  


A study at The University of London found that constant text and email messaging reduced the IQ by an average of 10 points, similar to losing a night’s sleep.   For men, at an average of -15, that’s 3 times more significant than the effects of smoking dope!


Create a routine declaring the end of the day or use app limits and downtime blocks on your phone helps to create boundaries to allow the brain some much needed time off.


2.     Fear switches off our thinking brain.


Our brain is constantly scanning for risk in satisfying its primary objective of keeping us safe.  When our fight/flight response is triggered, our brains direct all of their resources to survival, producing adrenaline and cortisol to make us more alert and stronger to fight or take flight.  


Fear in the workplace isn’t sparked by tigers running at us, it’s often social fear.  Fear of failure, rejection, missing targets, management, feedback, job security…the list goes on.  When we drop into fear, we inhibit our ability to think straight, make logical decisions, problem solve, prioritise. Our thinking brain pre-frontal cortex is shut down.


A short walk focuses the brain on motor activities and slows the fear response. As does box breathing (Breathe in for the count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4).


3.     Multi-tasking reduces the cognitive ability of a Harvard MBA student to that of an 8-year-old.


We can do two things at once of course, we can chat and drink coffee, walk and talk, but not if both tasks require mental power.  In today’s manic working world many of us are in a state of continual partial attention – flitting from task to task as we are distracted.  Our brains are always scanning the periphery for something more important.  


Experiments show that our performance drops as much as 50% when we attempt two mental tasks at once.  The complex tasks are often the first to be bumped out of focus as the brain struggles to do either task well. Accuracy and speed of task is impaired. Result – poor quality work or it actually takes longer to achieve the task.


Time blocking and purposefully limiting distractions can help reduce the flitting and faffing that causes frustrations of a busy but unproductive day.


4.     Everyone can re-wire their brains to achieve a more positive mindset.


The primary function of our brain is to maximise reward and minimise danger. Unfortunately, it sometimes trips us up by chucking us into a cycle of negative thoughts.  70-80% of our thoughts are negative as our brain keeps scanning for risk. Let’s call them “what if….” thoughts.  “What if I don’t win that contract” “What if X resigns”


Before we know it, we have conjoured up impending Armageddon and taken ourselves on a negative downward spiral.  As I said earlier, the fear response is triggered, shutting down our thinking brain. Problem.


The good news is we can learn to notice this pattern of self-destruction and slowly create positive pathways in the brain that notice these thoughts and re-frame them. 


5.     Self-care should be at the top of every leader’s priority list.


Self-care isn’t selfish. It isn’t self-indulgent. It isn’t something that should be squeezed in if the manic schedule allows.  Self-care is, I would argue, the most critical priority for a leader.  Focusing on plentiful quality sleep, fuelling up with foods that nourish, exercise to boost endorphins and relaxation means focus is sharp, motivation is high, clarity and complex thinking is maximised, stress is managed and perhaps the most overlooked of all, life is enjoyed, not just at the weekend and on holiday, but 365.


Diarise the fitness class, have “go to” healthy lunch options, create a sleep routine – one tiny step at a time.


Whilst I have by no means nailed all of these skills and I fully appreciate that busyness will trip me up, I have a fresh perspective on how I manage my priorities, my focus, my workload and my relationships…I have learned to work happy.


The Work Happy Project helps people and organisations in two ways.  Through the Engage, Enable & Empower programme, we support leaders of all levels to help their people thrive through positive leadership coaching. 


Through the Work Happy Well-Being Project, I work with a team of self-care experts and we take your team on a 7-week programme helping them form sustainable work happy habits utilising both the science and research of well-being alongside a habit-forming framework that gets great results.  Ongoing support then ensures there is a real stickability helping your people get life changing results.


I’d love a chat if you want to know more, drop me a DM or pop over to www.theworkhappyproject.co.uk to learn more.

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