Humans are intensely social beings and the human brain is wired for connection. Due to the current lockdown more people are working remotely, have lost their jobs or may be temporarily unemployed. Team members may be missing the social connection they usually have with their teammates. Some people enjoy working on their own, while others may be feeling isolated and be missing seeing their work colleagues, their family and their friends.
We know now from neuroscience studies when people experience isolation, rejection or other social discomforts, the same neural circuitry that lights up when we experience actual, physical pain lights up in our brain. Isolation quite literally HURTS. Knowing that our brain treats social pain identical to physical pain should lead us to treat social pain differently than we currently do. We wouldn’t expect someone with a broken arm to “just get over it”. Then why is it, that when it comes to the pain of a social loss this is a common response? Looking after our team-members’ social well-being is important as it will also have an impact on their overall mental well-being.
During my “Mind Your Mind – Looking after our team’s mental well-being during times of uncertainty and change” 83% of attendee’s said that they felt distracted and anxious which led to them not being able to think clearly, make poor decisions and increase feelings of anger and frustration. Unsurprisingly, all of this hurts performance and can create tension in teams.
All of these are signs that burnout may be just around the corner. Managing our teams’ stress is now more important than ever because we need our teams to perform “as best as they can” during lockdown as well as continuing to help our teams to work at their peak mental performance when this is all over. 2020 was a huge challenge for all of us and there will be more challenges down the road, so it is important for us to build resilient brains now so we can deal with the next challenges more effortlessly.
The impact of stress
We know that persistent and excessive stress negatively impacts people’s health and this is the time to actively counteract stressors in our personal and professional lives. Studies show that there is a link between psychological stress and diseases such as cardiovascular disease and depression, impaired immunity and obesity.
However, it’s not just the impact on us in terms of our physical health that we need to be concerned about. Stress hormones are toxic to our brain’s neurons over time, especially in areas that are key to high performance in the workplace. An area in our brain called the hippocampus which is responsible for learning and memory is extremely vulnerable to stress hormones such as cortisol. Too much stress can impact our ability to make and recall memories.
Our prefrontal cortex, our higher thinking brain and the seat of our morality, ability to empathise, self-regulate and make decisions also loses its ability to function effectively under siege from stress hormones. All of these brain areas have been shown to shrink under the prolonged influence of stress hormones - a sign of premature ageing.
Since our standard of living has improved over the last 30 years, our life expectancy has also gone up. Modern medicine can keep us alive longer but degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are on the rise. If you not only want to live to 100 but want to be able to recall all those precious memories of a lifetime, NOW is the time to begin looking after your brain health!
The engaged brain.
A stressed brain or burned-out brain is not an engaged brain. Because our emotions are contagious our teams may pick up on stress that their managers or colleagues are currently experiencing, and this may impact their performance also. To create engaged brains in the workplace we can help our teams in some of the following ways:
Look after yourself.
For team leaders to show up as their best for their teams they must begin by looking after themselves and to find ways to manage their own stress and emotions. Talking to your peers about how you are feeling and what you are doing to look after yourself will help you show up supportive and modelling the strength your teams require from you. As the saying goes “We cannot pour from an empty cup”. Getting 7 to 8 hours sleep, exercise, practising meditation and journaling on how you are feeling will all help you.
We may not be aware of what our teams are going through in their personal life, they may be helping elderly parents or neighbours or they may have underlining conditions that they are afraid to talk about. They may be experiencing the January blues. We cannot know what is going on for other people without making an effort to find out. Ask your team members, the simple (yet powerful question): “How are you?” (and don’t let them get away with “I’m fine!”)
Asking this question and actively listening to connect with how this person is feeling is crucially important and immensely impactful. When we feel that we are being listened to, it calms down the threat centre of our brain and it helps build trust and the feeling of connection, resulting in a release of feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin.
As I mentioned earlier, our brains are wired to seek out certainty and although it is not always possible to predict and prepare for the future accurately, we can create a feeling of certainty in the short term by talking about what we can achieve today or this week. Setting achievable goals and helping your teams work towards these daily will help calm your teams’ emotional brain and increase the likelihood to achieve small goals day in day out. This sense of achievement too will increase the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine.
Connection, fun and laughter.
Connecting with our teams who are working remotely is important because they are still part of the team, even though we may not see them every day. Out of sight should not be out of mind! Making time to connect with everyone over the phone or through video calls will help relieve the social pain they may be experiencing. Planning time for fun and laughter and bringing your teams together through video calls will have a positive impact on morale and team collaboration.
Taking small positive actions with your teams will improve team engagement and give you and your team the feeling of being “in this together”.
I agree, we need our team’s “to step up” and “pull it out of the bag”, however, in order for our team’s to do this, we as leader also need “to step up” and “pull it out of the bag” for our team’s and lead them by engaging their hearts and minds.
Today we can take action easily on some or all of the above-mentioned strategies straight away.
If you have any questions or would like more information on how I can help you with your team engagement and motivation, please feel free to reach out to me.
“An engaged brain is a motivated and committed brain”