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.
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.