“Life was very stressful for our forefathers or foremothers in the savannah – it was often a question of life or death. That’s where our brain was built,” explains Dr. Theo Compernolle, a medical doctor and neuro-psychiatrist, who has been writing about stress’s impact on the brain and body for over 30 years. “The question is, does our brain function in the right way for the jungle of the 21st century?”
Compernolle explains that the reflex brain is the part of the brain that grew out of the early drives for survival and procreation. In today’s world, however, the thinking brain has become much more important. “There is no work – in our offices or our factories – that doesn’t need a good thinking brain and social competencies. So, that’s a big change from muscle work to think work.”
In the developed world, we are primarily working from our thinking brain. As Compernolle says: “Stress today is about the things we think: ambitions, career, money, relationships, happiness, writing a book, where am I taking my next vacation?” These might seem like luxurious stressors, compared to the predicament of our forebearers, but in our quest for connectivity and convenience, we have createdlives that are actually more stressful. While in the past, we could benefit from a burst of stress-hormones and neurotransmitters and then recover, our body is not built to cope with constant elevated levels of these biochemicals. Healthy stress, that even increases our resilience, is interval stress. The stress that threatens our health – making us sick and even killing us – is chronic stress. One of the negative consequences of always being connected to the internet is that it causes a chronic low, but harmful, level of stress.
New technologies and their effect on stress levels
“New technologies introduced new stress, sometimes called ‘technostress.’ This is a misnomer. There is no problem with the technology itself. The problem is how we use the technology. Always being connected to our mobile phone causes avoidable heightened stress levels and potential burnout. However, there other dire consequences.”
While Compernolle is quick to cite the myriad benefits of technology, this chronic state of connectivity is having an adverse effect on our health and creating anxiety.
“There is a difference between the possibility of always being connected, and always being connected,” he says. “Always being connected seduces us to continuous multitasking and that leads to a significant decrease in intellectual productivity, creativity and memory. We need more time to do a worse job. Worse, because we make more mistakes. When these mistakes are made on the work floor because work is organized in ways that neglect this knowledge, it might lead to accidents. No wonder at CEDEP we developed a fan-club of safety managers and plant managers who can prevent accidents in ways they never thought about before they learned the basics directions for use of the human brain.”
The problem of multitasking can be tackled at three levels: the individual, the managerial and the societal. In fact, progressive thinking about improving peoples’ work-life balance, and in the process, their brain health, is gaining momentum across Europe. In Germany, already in 2014, major companies like Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW started limiting work email in private time. The French supreme court ruled that, unless their contract explicitly mentions demands it, employees have the right to disconnect from work during private time. Portugal made it illegal for bosses to contact workers outside of work hours, and Germany plans to do the same. These are steps in the right direction for societies.
Creating a higher functioning workplace
As a boss or manager, you can be a leader in creating a company culture that is more brain healthy, by fighting for focus and against continuous connectivity.
“For example, companies keep using open office spaces, against the massive research showing these are a total disaster for work that needs concentration. The open office is like a marketplace. There are people on the phone, writing, talking to each other. The very minimum you should do,” says Compernolle, “is to turn that around… turn the open office into a library atmosphere, where people can concentrate without too much energy.”
Compernolle describes a company where the CEO modelled the offices on the “Google model” after a visit to Silicon Valley. After having a baby later in life, he realized that in this lively and constantly engaging context he created, work had begun to occupy an unhealthy amount of time of peoples’ lives.
He began to reconsider the ratio between work time, family time and time to rest and sleep. He followed Compernolle’s guidance and introduced a new way of working. One of the innovations was “do not disturb” time for two hours a day in the common workspace. Because of the employees’ skepticism, the CEO introduced it as a pilot, for only six weeks. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and before the pilot ended, the workers increased it to three hours of silent work time a day. They began to call it a “Brain Party,” plugging in a garland of party lights to signify its start. Phones were banned from meetings, and they also hung red lamps above each desk, indicating that when the lamp is on, that person should not be disturbed. One effect in this company – where like in many creative companies, overtime had become endemic – was that they almost totally eliminated overtime. They calculated that their productivity increased by 30%. Seizing the opportunity, they developed a successful new business line helping other companies to follow their example.
Individual changes can improve brain health and performance
Some of these benefits can also be accessed through individual changes, regardless of workplace culture. Compernolle’s book BrainChains is full of practical tips and tricks to get the best of your brain and reduce stress and anxiety. On top of the list is being the master – and not the slave – of your mobile.
“If you are always connected, as a result you are never fully present, never fully engaged, never fully productive, never fully enjoying, never fully free, never fully relaxed and never fully satisfied,” says Compernolle.
The only way to achieve this state of presence, productivity and satisfaction is to do batch-tasking instead of multitasking. The most important “batch” is for work that requires sustained attention, at least twice a day for 45 minutes, without any interruptions. The most difficult batches, especially for people who are addicted to being connected, are the message-batches. This means only looking at messages during a limited time a few times a day, which is the very best way to unleash the full power of your brain function and memory. This may sound like a challenge, but the positive effects could surprise you – and your colleagues, and your family.
Put simply: “Multitasking is like using a Swiss knife with all its 10 blades out at the same time; it’s ridiculously inefficient, and you risk getting hurt.”
To learn more about how to manage stress and optimize your brain’s performance, explore CEDEP’s Leadership & Safety Culture Programme. As part of the programme, Dr. Compernolle MD., PhD., combines research from fields including medicine, biology, psychology, neurology, physiology and management to find practical applications and shares these insights in his lectures, workshops and books. He is the author of a dozen books including BrainChains and How to Unchain Your Brain.