work habits, stress and brain wiring

IMG_3688The habit of working long hours sitting at a desk and not stopping for lunch, raises stress and fatigue levels, reduces immune function, and executive brain functions like logical thinking, problem solving, perception and judgment. It can increase the likelihood of illness, injury and insomnia.

In recent years, work absence due to stress anxiety and depression has increased by 20 percent. And absence for heart conditions and high blood pressure, often symptoms of… well… stress, has almost doubled.

Stress and fatigue cause a similar reaction in the brain as alcohol. Yet while going into work drunk is frowned upon, fatigue and stress are more often treated with caffeine and bravado.

It’s not logical and it’s not healthy. But it’s a common habit.

So why not change it?

Changing these habits takes effort and energy, and is most difficult when its most essential -when stress is at its highest. The same applies to individuals, as to teams, to organisations and to communities.

It’s an ever-decreasing circle.

Habits are established behavior patterns or ways of thinking, that we have learned and so require little conscious thought. Thankfully we are good at learning habits otherwise each morning getting up and dressed would be an exhausting session of conscious thoughts and actions… remember learning to tie shoelaces or spreading jam on toast?

Once behavior patterns are learned they become quick and need little energy, and the more we do them the better we get.

And here’s the thing. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between a good habit and a bad one. It just wires up the nerve connections to do what’s demanded. And the more often the same thing is done the more the wiring develops from a small rough track, to a smoothly finished superhighway. And the behaviour becomes normal… a habit.

The conscious logical part of our brain knows its better to get up and move about every half an hour at work and use a headset, not squeeze the phone between shoulder and ear. It knows its better to stop and rest or take a break to oxygenate the brain and help concentration. It knows its better to work seven good hours that ten prolonged ones.

But when stress and fatigue mount, we can’t think straight. We take the shortcut. We fix the fatigue with coffee, skip lunch, grab a sugary snack at the desk, grip the phone between shoulder and ear, and sit tight without taking a break in the mistaken belief that that will help it get done.

So, to avoid falling back on automatic pre-learned patterns, this is the time when it’s vital to work together to be actively involved and mindful of the slip-up points, and to keep the longterm purpose in view. This is the time to have in place a strategic plan to prevent stress and strain in the workplace.

Creating a healthy workplace culture may require fundamental changes to the work, the people, the systems and to the way health is perceived. It requires investment of time, energy, and resources, as well as understanding, planning and majority buy-in. It’s not enough to tinker at the edges. It won’t last. t’ll be lie the New Year’s flurry of gym activity that lasts till mid march. Good working habits need time, encouragement and practice. But once they are established habits, they are… well just the normal way you work!

So, for starters, move about at work every half hour and go home on time!

Make work better, not longer.