The brain is the most complex part of the body and scientists and psychologists have spent years studying it to decipher how it works.

This evolving discipline of neuroscience can also be leveraged by employers to build a thriving workplace and support business success.

Here, we look at the role neuroscience plays in helping organisations understand employee behaviour to create a happier, healthier workforce.

Neuroscience in the workplace

Our brains are malleable, meaning they can change and adapt in response to our experiences. Without this ‘neuroplasticity’, we wouldn’t be able to develop from infancy to adulthood.

Neuroplasticity also means our brains never remain static. They restructure and rewire continually throughout our lives in response to learning. Deep-rooted behaviour thought processes and habits can consequently be changed – something employers can harness to promote a healthy and happy workforce.

The plasticity route to emotional wellbeing support

Employees need to feel ‘safe’ to perform at their best.

Their bodies, however, will go into self-protect mode when the basal regions of their brains – constantly scanning the environment for threats and regulating our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response – trigger alarm responses.

This might be caused by anxiety over heavy workloads, for example, or the prospect of public speaking.

Under such circumstances, it’s all too easy for them to default to subconscious, deep-rooted behaviours that stem from them feeling panicked and overwhelmed.

As the brain is not ‘fixed’ however, employers can help employees adapt and remodel these behaviours. This might be achieved by introducing them to mindfulness programmes or by checking in with them to ensure their problems are externalised so they can be better managed and addressed.

Here, the limbic system in our brains can come into play. This is responsible for our emotions, and research has revealed that the hippocampus and amygdala – two of the main sites that regulate memory, emotions and bodily functions – are activated when we experience feelings of gratitude. Gratitude also activates the hypothalamus which regulates the hormones responsible for critical functions, such as sleep, appetite and body temperature.

Studies have also found that gratitude can improve a person’s mental health, with employees who feel valued and recognised for their contributions benefiting from greater job satisfaction and higher levels of motivation.

Despite the evolution of our brains, neuroscience has shown we still look for threats and rewards to help survive. For employers, this highlights the importance of fostering positivity, kindness and a supportive workplace environment.

Social connections are also important. When the brain has a non-active moment, on a break from work for example, its response is to consider other people’s thoughts, feelings and goals.

During the pandemic when most employees were working from home, the lack of socialisation had a significant impact with feelings of disconnect coming to the fore. Employees who had stronger work relationships felt more productive.

Research has revealed that when we feel social pain, our brains ‘hurt’ in a similar way to our experiences of physical pain.

It has also shown that when we feel liked and respected in the workplace, the brain’s reward system is activated, suggesting social rewards can be as effective as financial incentives when it comes to employee motivation.

By ensuring social wellbeing is a key ingredient of wellness strategies, employers can help boost morale and reduce feelings of isolation. This might involve organising regular team catch-ups to share success stories and achievements to boost comradery, as well as activities that aren’t necessarily work-focused, such as quizzes and employee-led forums on topics such as fitness and nutrition.

The role of neuroscience in managing stress and boosting resilience

When the brain is subjected to prolonged bouts of stress, high levels of cortisol are released. Not only does this affect heart rate and blood pressure, it can also cause the hippocampus to shrink, affecting our memory and emotional responses.

What’s more, repeated stress can also cause brain inflammation, which studies have shown to adversely affect motivation and mental agility.

With neuroscience revealing that sustained levels of stress can affect an employee’s brain function, employers could look at introducing stress management programmes to help provide workers with effective coping mechanisms. These can incorporate mindfulness activities, such as meditation and yoga.

When practicing mindfulness, grey matter in the amygdala – a region that plays a part in stress – gets smaller, while grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex – the area responsible for planning, problem-solving and controlling emotions – becomes thicker and increased activity occurs.

Providing access to stress management programmes not only equips employees with the tools to manage their own stress triggers but employers benefit from a more emotionally-resilient employee population.

Promoting the benefits of physical exercise can also have an important role to play. Exercise increases oxygen to the brain, reducing inflammation and boosting the production of new brain cells, which can sharpen cognition skills and enhance mood levels.

What neuroscience says about employee burnout

Neuroscience has found that the brains of those suffering from burnout show signs of chronic stress, negatively impacting their capabilities.

The prevalence of this issue, compounded by long working hours and excessive job demands, was recently highlighted in research that found 71 per cent of employees have experienced burnout since transitioning to home working in 2020.

Burnout enlarges the amygdala, altering our mood, with long-term stress-induced burnout reducing the connection between the amygdala and other brain areas, making it harder for us to regulate and control our emotional responses.

Cognitive function can also be affected, with our brains becoming more sensitive to stressful situations, and memory, attention and decision-making problems arising.

Sleep is crucial for our bodies and minds to recharge, yet many employees still get less than the recommended eight hours per night. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of adults worldwide say they don’t get enough sleep, with 37 per cent blaming hectic work or school schedules.

The phenomenon of ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ which sees employees sacrificing sleep for leisure time “in order to regain some sense of freedom during late-night hours” is commonplace.

When we sleep, our brains process information into memories through the creation of pathways between nerve cells. Sleep deprivation can mean there’s not enough time for these pathways to be constructed.

During the pandemic, cases of insomnia – or ‘coronasomnia’ – increased. With home working, our daily routines became disrupted and our external cues, which control our body clocks, such as our commute and breaktimes, altered or disappeared completely.

From a business perspective, burnout can be costly, leading to falls in productivity and increased incidents of absenteeism. Managers can help combat the problem by promoting a healthy work/life balance, encouraging regular breaks, promoting better sleep and eating habits, offering flexible working, morale-boosting activities and professional counselling sessions.

Combatting depression

Neuroscience research has found that organisations that fail to prioritise their employees’ mental health increase their risk of depression by 300 per cent. The risk is compounded by poor management practices, such as failure to reward or acknowledge their employees’ work, unreasonable demands and a lack of autonomy.

Creating an open and understanding environment for employees to express themselves without judgement is key.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can also provide valuable support, with confidential 24/7 helplines to qualified and experienced counsellors, financial experts and lawyers.

Furthermore, activity in the brain region associated with depression can be reduced by spending more time in natural environments. Employee strategies here can include promoting walking meetings in parks, creating outdoor garden areas or even investing in plants for the office. Neuroscience has come a long way and has helped raise the bar in our approach to employee wellbeing. As we look to the future, new studies and technologies should help employers to further understand the human experience as we collectively strive to create happier and healthier workforces.