Health and Mental Well-Being
Brain-Friendly Work Environments: What Does that Mean and Why Does It Matter?
Today’s workforce expects fulfillment and sustainable culture change.
The workforce crisis continues. Workforce trends clearly demonstrate that staff expects leaders to move beyond pre-pandemic, top-down, employee recognition and self-care initiatives. To truly partner with them to improve engagement, retention, equity, and communication, the workforce of today expects leaders to focus on fulfillment and sustainable culture change, and to teach new skills to take on today’s challenges. i
As leaders, we are persuaded to practice empathy, compassion, connection, inclusivity, psychological safety, mindfulness, and gratitude. But guidance on how to do these things is lacking. The pressing questions are: Where do we focus our learning first? What is the foundational framework to guide our actions?
The answer to the first question is simple – our brain. And the intervention is straightforward – create brain friendly work environments. Sound intimidating? It truly is not. The basics about brain functioning are easy to learn. Applying this knowledge in everyday interactions is trickier and requires focus, practice, and intention. But it is doable. The hardest task may be embracing the need to create brain friendly work environments.
Our sector has made strides in understanding the urgency to build healthy brains in new babies and young children. Early childhood resilience strategies such as “serve and return” and efforts to strengthen executive functioning skills are now commonly built into trainings and practice. However, the human services field has been slow to translate emerging brain friendly interventions into learnings and practices with adults, especially our workforce.
Bringing this knowledge into our work cultures is critical to creating well-being and resilience, especially in our complex and stressful work settings. Our brain mediates our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and as Dr. Bruce Perry notes “…a brain aware perspective helps me when I’m trying to understand people.” ii With this knowledge, we can prevent and mitigate the impact of toxic stress on our brains and bodies. And we can lay the foundation for being well at work.
Start Building Brain-Friendly Practices
If we want to strengthen brain friendly practices at work, where do we start? Here are three basic strategies to begin your work.
Understand Basic Brain Architecture
The brain is built from the bottom up, and different parts of the brain mediate different functions. As you go from the lower part of the brain, or brainstem, to the highest part of the brain, the frontal cortex, you go from the simplest to the more complex functions. Core regulatory networks, which originate in the lower part of the brain, are the backbone of the stress response system. Our brain gets input from all these networks to tell us if we are safe or threatened. If there is no insignificant need that is unmet, we can access our frontal cortex. However, when we are threatened or perceive we are threatened, this impacts how we think, feel, and behave. The more threatened we are, the more we shut down the thinking part of our brain.
So why care about this at work? We know that first responders, child protection workers, street outreach workers, and others who work in physically unsafe situations need to understand this basic physiology. But most of us are physically safe at work, so why does it matter to us? Well, threats that impact how we think, feel, and behave fall along a wide continuum of needs – from the threat of physical harm to the threat of feeling undervalued, unheard, and disconnected. When our core stress response networks warn us that we are in the out group, our voice is unheard, our work is undervalued, or we are in conflict with someone, we may easily default to our lower brain. Our frontal cortex shuts down, and we struggle to problem solve, innovate, create, advocate, hold others accountable, and take risks. We remain vigilant, push back, check out, and feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Our already complex work becomes harder, and the risk of burn out increases.
The good news is there are countless ways, as individuals and organizations, to create brain friendly cultures in which we can stay in our thinking brain, mitigate toxic stress, increase connection, improve equity and accountability, and reach the outcomes we are so hungry to achieve.
Regulate, Relate, Reason
Regulation is the basic strategy for calming our lower brain and staying in our thinking brain. Focused breathing, taking a short walk, listening to music, and using a standing desk are all ways to keep our mind clear and focused. There are dozens of regulation strategies to use in the work setting, both for large groups and individuals.
Dr. Bruce Perry’s sequence of engagement – regulate, relate, reason – is a simple practice for effective communication that starts with regulation.i The steps work in this order:
- Regulate: First, ensure we are calm and centered before we start talking. You and your colleagues can use regulations strategies that work for you.
- Relate: Next, connect human to human. Ask a colleague: What are you looking forward to? What are you worried about? What are you thinking about today?
- Reason: Finally, move to the content of the conversation: to-do lists, a pending project, or complex equity dynamics in a work relationship.
When we do this at every meeting, supervision session, and human interaction, especially the hard ones we avoid, we have greater success in our communications. We move closer to achieving the workforce outcomes we strive for – increased trust, stronger relationships, candid conversations, and more accountability.
Understand Executive Functioning
Our brains are exposed to about eleven million pieces of information at any given time and can only process about 0.00001% of that incoming data. This knowledge about the brain is critical to understanding equity, diversity, and inclusion concepts, such as implicit bias and power differentials.i It is also central to understanding executive functioning skills, which help our brains manage an overload of information to prioritize tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses. The Harvard Center on the Developing Childii notes that these skills are like an air traffic control system which ensures planes navigate safely in flight and at an airport. Learning these skills in childhood is critical to healthy brain development. As adults, we need environments that support optimal executive functioning so we can plan, meet goals, practice self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions.
Ideas to Start Elevating Executive Functioning Skills at Work
Write Short, Succinct Emails
Long, unfocused emails are hard to understand, especially when we are under stress, in our lower brain, and our air traffic control is too busy. If staff are not reading emails, it could be because the messages are not brain friendly. Write short emails that are absent of unnecessary words and focused on the most important content and requests.
Our brains micro-switch, not multi-task. When we try to do more than one content-related task simultaneously, we fail. We cannot answer an email and hear the content of an online training at the same time. When we do one thing at a time, we are more effective, efficient, and productive. Modeling this concept at work and mitigating the workload our staff carry are key strategies for building a brain friendly environment.
Ready to take the next steps in creating a brain friendly work environment?
There is much more to learn about the brain and how it makes us think, feel, and behave. The first step, and possibly the hardest one, is understanding that brain friendly awareness is a critical cornerstone for working with adults and is at the core of building a healthy workforce. The concepts and strategies are teachable, applicable, and worth the investment of time and resources. When we embrace building brain friendly environments, we lay the foundation for workforce culture change that our staff needs to thrive and be well during these challenging times.
Social Current can help with that journey:
- Consultation: Learning collaboratives, one-on-one consultation, and learning series offer specially designed experiences to create brain-science-informed partnerships with staff that improve engagement, retention, and communication; focus on sustainable culture change; and reframe challenges as opportunities to grow and become stronger.
- Knowledge & Insights Center (KIC): KIC disseminates a robust collection of research and resources, including curation on brain science research and applications. Services are available through the Social Current engagement packages as well as separate subscriptions to the Resources Portal and custom research projects.
- Learning: Through the Learning Exchange, national experts explain brain science research and give practical recommendations for implementing and sustaining practices that support employees, improve performance, and increase the success of organizational outcomes. Examples include Core Strategies for Workforce Well-Being and Resilience – watch the recording today.
- SPARK Exchange Groups: These groups foster unity and innovation around key issue areas informed by brain science applications, such as population health and well-being, educational success, and advancing equity. Networking opportunities include online discussion forums, roundtables, and more.
i O.C. Tanner Institute (2023). Global Culture Report.
ii Bruce Perry & Oprah Winfrey. (2021). What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing. Flatiron Books.
iv Short Wave, NPR (2020). Understanding Unconscious Bias.
v Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University (n.d.). What is Executive Function? And How Does It Relate to Child Development?