It is a common refrain: Employees are a company's most valuable asset.
More specifically, it is their cortexes, the part of the brain that handles language, thinking, reflection and planning, says neuroscientist and psychiatrist Bruce Perry, founder of the Neurosequential Network.
The problem is, workers are widely mismanaged by their bosses, Perry says: "The cortex is exquisitely sensitive, so stressing out your people is really shooting yourself in the foot."
Here, Perry explains how employers and staff can create the right workplace environment to promote calm, productivity, innovation, and creativity, as workers grapple with grim headlines about the war in Ukraine and a seemingly never-ending global pandemic.
You talk a lot about regulation. What is that?
If you go too long without eating or resting, you get out of balance: You are dysregulated, and that influences your physiological functioning. We all do things to keep our systems in equilibrium, so the body says, "I am safe, I am comfortable, I am not cold or thirsty — I am in an environment where people care for me and respect me." When you are in that regulated state, you have most access to the cortex.
How is the workplace dysregulating?
If your brain sees something unfamiliar, its default response is to act like it is a threat and activate your stress response, which will shut down your cortex.
Like a surprise assignment or yelling boss?
Yes. You will be more productive with a boss who is consistent, even if he is predictably a jerk.
How do organisations negatively contribute to this?
The structure in most organisations is hierarchical, which creates a lot of unpredictability for certain people and gives the feeling that things are done to them, as opposed to them having a role in deciding how and when and where to do their work. These factors increase the level of stress and distress that you experience.
Can employee assistance programs (EAPs) help?
The biggest problem we have now is that executives think they have got an EAP, so that box is checked, and they will just wait until people have crises. That is just externalising the problem, rather than recognising that the choices they have made about the way they have structured the business are contributing to the problem.
To what extent can people simply cope?
If people are stretched thin or depressed or worried, their margin of tolerance erodes, and they will get physically ill or emotionally distressed, and many leave the workforce. We are seeing this right now in the pandemic — all kinds of people are retiring early, dropping out of education, and leaving workplaces that contribute to their distress.
Can therapy address this?
The idea that in one hour a week you can change the brain in an enduring way is just an arrogant fantasy. Talk therapy does work — it can be wonderful — but the person has to be in the right state, not dysregulated, anxious, and overwhelmed. A lot of times it would be much better for the person to develop a toolkit for regulating themselves.
What would that look like at work?
Patterned, repetitive rhythmic movements, like walking, rocking, chewing gum, or bilateral tapping (feet or hands) tell the brain that you are safe. There are a variety of techniques that can involve breathing or movement. You integrate regulatory breaks into your work hour, like two minutes of getting up, stretching, and walking every 40 minutes.
Can you give an example of something that stresses employees' cortexes?
Meetings are the dumbest thing that any organisation ever created. They default to a certain block of time and bring in a bunch of people to do nothing, while other parts of the organisation are pressuring those same people to be productive. Do you need to have that many meetings, and does everybody need to do the meeting? Organisations do a lot of things that are incredibly counterproductive.
What else helps exhausted or traumatised employees?
Relational moments, like one to two minutes of touching base. You need hundreds of little moments where people signal that you belong, you matter, you are cared about and listened to. It is a continuous, repetitive set of experiences that therapeutically impact the central nervous system.
It is analogous to language learning. Could you change your brain to understand Spanish in two minutes per day?
Can leaders do relational moments?
Regulate yourself first. If you are distracted, overscheduled, on deadline, or overwhelmed, you are not going to be present for that moment.