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​OSU Ross ​Center for Brain Health and Performance

Promoting Brain Health in the Workplace

Corporate leaders share their tips.

The Social Brain Blog sat down recently with Danny Shea, Head of Global Expansion at Thrive Global, Julie Wilkes who leads leads Accenture’s North American Wellness and Disability Team and Amanta Mazumdar, Senior Director of Talent and Rewards Strategy at Hilton who helps lead their efforts around workplace well-being. This discussion followed their presentations on brain health in the workplace at the Third Annual Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Neurological Institute and The Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance.

Social Brain Blog: What are the most important applications of brain health to the workplace for improving employee happiness and productivity?

Danny Shea: We now know more about the brain, the body, and how to optimize cognitive function and performance than ever before, and we are able to design workplaces based on that. Workplaces have always been designed around this mistaken notion that in order to succeed we have to burn ourselves out. All of the collective assumptions and norms that we built as a society have not been based around actually optimizing performance—they've been based around optimizing short-term output.

SBB: The fields you work in are notorious for the pressures they can sometimes put on employees. What are the specific challenges of changing the corporate cultures in your fields, and how can new discoveries in brain health help?

Julie Wilkes: Healthy employees are more productive, happier, and likely to stay with their organization longer. In the past, multi-tasking and being "on" all the time was a way corporate culture inspired employees to feel most productive, but we now know that these qualities are not efficient. What we’re finding—and what we’re responding to—is that being present and mindful leads to greater creativity, innovation, connectivity with others and efficiency. There are less errors and it takes less time to do things when we are focused and not distracted. As a result, we are inspiring a culture where we not only create awareness around mindfulness and being present with our work, but also a culture that respects others and their ability to focus by lessening distractions. We believe this shift is having a positive impact on the way we do business and the way we interact with each other inside and outside of work.

Amanta Mazumdar: It’s important to find the right balance of what you’re doing centrally vs. what you decentralize. So, while we have certain programs that we coordinate from headquarters, we also want to provide our hotels enough runway to find what works for them. In terms of team members, they want a sense of purpose, a sense of dignity in their work, and a sense that they’re learning and growing. I think that permeates whatever job you have in whatever industry you are in. In our case, we’ve done things like brightening our office spaces for our employees, especially back of house, an aspect of the hotel that guests never see. Even the simple things can have real impact.

SBB: Is the idea of “work-life balance” still a valid paradigm, especially in light of what we now know about the brain?

DS: The work-life balance concept implies that work and life are fundamentally in opposition with each other, and that in order to succeed at one you have to give up on the other. The model that we think makes more sense is work-life integration centered around the idea of the whole human.

You don’t check your personal issues or health problems when you walk in the door at work and you don’t check your work problems or the stress or the baggage connected to them when you walk through your front door at home. It’s an outdated notion that there’s two separate pieces of life when in really it’s about one person coming to both.

SBB: What are some of the ways that you can improve brain health in the workplace and begin thinking about work-life integration?

DS: The drivers of brain health are not that dissimilar from the drivers of heart health or the drivers of just what we’ve all known as health. Sleep, nutrition, meditation, mindfulness, movement, exercise – all of these things drive brain health. Whether what you want professionally is creativity-focused or involves innovation or better decision making, all of these things are driven by the lifestyle choices you make, all of which also impact brain health.

AM: In hospitality, you can’t be naïve about the fact that you’re working with customers every day. When guests have requests, we work quickly to provide them. We fundamentally feel that in order for our team members to take care of our guests, they have to take care of themselves, too. This is at the heart of our culture and everything we do.

JW: Sitting at computers for long periods of time lends itself to less cognitive thinking, lower energy levels, and less interaction. When people are sitting all day, we want to give them a reason to get up every 1-2 hours, increase oxygen to their brain and body and come back to what they are working on with renewed focus and creativity. A mind and body ‘reset’.
We are focused on creating an environment that encourages people to get up and move throughout the day, have walking meetings, schedule their calendar to have a break in-between meetings to refocus, and be cognizant of interruptions and distractions. As part of our journey, we are bringing mindfulness and meditation into the workplace to teach employees simple ways to retrain their brain to be more present.

SBB: Much of modern work seems to involve sitting at a computer for long spans of time. What can companies can do to alleviate some of the mental stresses involved with the medium of work these days?

DS: I think the first thing you can do is set proper expectations for response time and have systems in place to make clear what is urgent and important and what can wait. At our company, no one is expected to be on email on nights and weekends. That’s not to say you might not receive an email—you’re just not expected to be on it and you’re not expected to respond to it. If your manager really needs you, they can text you, or you have another system in place.

During the workday, you can institute little reminders to yourself that help with the effects of constantly staring at a computer screen. You can calendar standing breaks, you can change your meetings to walking meetings, you can set hydration reminders.

Any one of these things can be done individually but they’re actually more powerful if the manager, the culture, or the boss sets the example. A lot of the time, changes are made because someone in charge gives permission. Employees know that something is good for them and they want to do it—but they don’t always think that they can do these more healthy practices at work. So the managers need to create the space and give permission for employees to make these little changes for themselves during the course of the day.

SBB: Do you face different issues with younger employees than with your older employees? Have you observed a generation gap?

DS: We recognize that you’re a person outside of work as well, and that really resonates with millennials. What I think is amazing about the moment is that millennials are actually driving the change whether they know it or not. Fundamentally one of the big reasons why workplace wellbeing is getting more and more baked into companies is not just because of the science proving its importance, but because younger workers are demanding it. Workplace wellbeing is now as much of a recruitment and retention tool as anything else. If you want a workforce of the future you need to kind of design your workforce for the future.

JW: So do we. And as a result, we have to think about what’s going to have the biggest impact for our people — about what’s going to make them feel the most supported – in all the ways that matter to them. We want to offer a full package which includes the opportunity, the resources, and the empowerment to take care of their body, heart, mind, and soul.

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About the Author

OSU Wexner Medical Center for Brain Health and Performance combines five neuroscience-related specialties into an integrated program, and has one of the country's largest neuromuscular clinical and research programs.