7 Science-Backed Strategies Leaders Can Use To Optimize Employee Brain Capital

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In order to face the rapidly changing world of work, experts say the most important solution to the mental health crisis, The Great Resignation and hiring crisis is a strategic investment in human capital. According to International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva, PhD, the time is now to invest in human capital. And based on all of the neuroscience, the best capital is building a better and healthy work brain.

The Cutting-Edge Concept Of Brain Capital

Your brain works 24/7. Even when you’re asleep, it never is. It’s listening, sensing and dealing with stressors to keep you safe and sound. It’s resolving solutions, making job decisions and thinking about career possibilities even when you’re not aware of it. This “always on” organ is so devoted, it never takes a break or a vacation. But neuroscientists also say it has its limits. There are steps you can take to optimize your brain’s potential as well as coworkers you supervise or work with.

The concept of Brain Capital “is to drive innovation in a Brain Economy by optimizing employee brain health and performance,” said Eric Smith of Stanford University. “The Brain Capital model encourages employers to cultivate the cognitive capacity of their employees by optimizing employee brain health and emphasizes an international partnership of business and science to develop actionable brain health care.”

7 Ways To Develop A Brain Economy Workplace Strategy

In the “good old days,” business was built on a motto that you live by the book and follow the straight and narrow. If you didn’t rock the boat and went along with the corporate culture, you could retire with the proverbial gold watch and live happily ever after. Not so anymore. Companies that pigeonhole workers into narrow, tight roles force them to draw on their weaknesses and spend energy staying within strict confines that limit their brain capital and company growth. Employees are demanding more from their employers. Research shows that when organizations invest in a strategy to build employee brain capital, they enhance worker engagement, productivity and their own bottom line.

  1. Music. A study at the University of Toronto revealed that repeated listening to personally meaningful music cultivates beneficial brain plasticity improving memory and performance. This research suggests that allowing employees to wear ear pods and listen to their favorite music while working can enhance brain capital. “Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” said Dr. Michael Thaut, senior author of the study. “It’s simple—keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you—make that your brain gym.”
  2. Short breaks. Your brain needs rest just like your body does. Scientists have discovered that taking short breaks helps your brain learn new skills. Microbreaks of five or 10 minutes give the brain a much-needed rest during work hours and helps you recharge and reset. It’s important that workers are allowed to take time to stretch, eat a snack or simply walk around the office to amp up engagement and productivity. Or the 20-20-20 rule says that for every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you take a 20 second break, move around and look at something 20 feet away, which relaxes the eye muscles for 20 seconds and gives your brain a much-needed respite.
  3. Time in nature. Science backed studies show that when you spend time in nature it’s good for your brain and well-being. Brain scans of people who spent time outdoors showed they had more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex with positive effects on their ability to think clearly and self-regulate. This research underscores the importance of employees taking frequent nature breaks whether sitting outdoors or taking brief walks during the workday to give their brains a chance to recharge and reset.
  4. Creativity. The platform of a 21st century thriving company is one that encourages thinking outside the box, innovative ideas and employee individualism. Studies suggest organizations that foster diversity, nonconformity and inventive ideas generate employee engagement and draw on employee strengths, adding to the prosperity of their businesses.
  5. Unfear. According to a new book by Gaurav Bhatnagar and Mark Minukas, fear and uncertainty have been undermining performance and well-being in the workplace for as long as we have had workplaces. Under fear, the human brain focuses on how to avoid the threat instead of engaging with and producing work tasks—blocking success outcomes. According to Bhatnagar and Minukas, fear-based leadership is responsible for almost all of the dysfunction that most organizations experience. While fear can drive short-term results, it does so at the cost of high employee burnout and turnover. It also undermines long-term business performance. Winning organizations aren’t fear-free, but they know how to transform negative energy into opportunities for learning and growth. They create resilient cultures of “unfear,” according to the authors, with strategies that create cultures of “unfear” by investing in brain capital of psychological safety to enhance performance, greater profits, sustainable growth and personal rewards.
  6. Meditation. A body of research has shown that various forms of meditation reduce stress. Mindfulness, in particular, keeps your mind from wandering and keeps your focus on work tasks, scientists say. Plus, if you meditate, even just for 20 minutes—according to the latest research, it alters brain activity so you’re less error prone and make fewer mistakes. A recent study took it a step further by analyzing hair samples of 332 participants in a mindfulness meditation program and discovered that meditation reduced cortisol levels by 25%. Cortisol levels in the body are indicators of the amount of stress we endure. The lower the cortisol, the lower the stress.
  7. Social Support. Researchers found that having someone around whom you know you can talk to and will listen is tied to brain health and cognitive resilience. Social support in the workplace is critical to build brain resilience. Whether its an empathetic manager, supportive coworker or someone in HR. A caring, empathetic workplace is a must to optimize brain capital.

A Final Word

Taken together these science-backed findings indicate that companies can reduce work stress and optimize employee brain capital by offering on-site meditation classes—as Thrive Global, Google and others have done—or providing quiet spaces for employees to meditate throughout the day. Plus, creating a psychologically safe and compassionate work environment where fear is absent and employees have someone to talk to who will listen, where employees have the freedom to take breaks when they need to, think outside the box, take nature walks and listen to music while they work—all add to a jump in productivity and the company’s bottom line.

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