Is Work Damaging Your Brain Health? 5 Strategies To Improve It

Is Work Damaging Your Brain Health? 5 Strategies To Improve It

By Tracy Brower, PhD

If you’re like most people, your brain health and wellbeing may have suffered over the last couple years. Brain health—how your brain functions across cognitive, emotional, behavioural and physical areas—affects your quality of work and life.

The good news: You can control and improve your brain health for better wellbeing overall.

Priorities and Struggles

What’s most important for brain health? Most people prioritize memory and focus as the top elements of brain health, according to a new study of 5,000 people by Muse. These are followed by quality of sleep, mood, productivity and creativity respectively.

But a majority of people are experiencing negative conditions. Between 44% and 38% of people are feeling overworked, burned out, unappreciated, lacking in satisfaction and lacking in joy. And the factors which contribute most to these negative experiences are stress, for 47% of people, and lack of social interactions for 37%.

Enhancing Brain Health

There are pragmatic actions you can take so you can enhance your wellbeing, happiness and the health of your thinking, feeling and cognition.

#1 – Take Action

When you’re facing a problem or a challenge, taking action positively affects your wellbeing. This has to do with the human preference for empowerment and control. People tend to become demotivated without adequate control or when things feel uncertain. In fact, two hallmarks of burnout are feeling trapped or ineffective.

So taking action and becoming your own best advocate are good for brain health. In fact, according to the study, the following actions contributed to positive effects on memory, focus, sleep, mood, productivity and creativity. In order they were:

  • Achieving a promotion at current job (1 – best for brain health)
  • Becoming location-independent (2)
  • Receiving a pay raise at current job (3)
  • Relocating to a new city or town (4)
  • Changing profession (5)
  • Quitting current job and starting a new one (6)

Take the steps necessary to put yourself forward for a new job or make a case for a pay raise. Consider what you love and what gives you the most satisfaction and change jobs when it makes sense. If you don’t love where you live, explore places you might relocate. And if your company offers options for hybrid work or flexibility in where, when or how you work, take advantage of these.

Overall, step up, take appropriate risks, try new things and make a case for yourself when you deserve more in your work.

Learning contributes to greater creativity and brain health overall. 

#2 – Learn Something New

For your brain health, it’s also smart to seek new learning, stretch and explore new areas to grow. This was correlated with greater brain health generally, and it was the number one thing people in the study said enhanced their creativity.

Learning is significantly associated with happiness and career advancement because it reminds you of what you’re capable of and keeps you stimulated with what’s new and interesting to you. Learning can build confidence and contribute to you feeling empowered and in charge of your own destiny. When you want a new job, and you sign up to learn more about a key skill for your progress, you reinforce your capabilities and self-determination.

Research also demonstrates when you fail 15% of the time, you’re more likely to stay motivated. Failing more than 15% might cause you to decide the activity isn’t for you, and you may give up. Or if you fail less than 15% of the time, you may determine you’ve accomplished enough and want to go to the next challenge. But a 15% failure rate tends to be the sweet spot that keeps you coming back to try again.

Learning also helps you see new perspectives and broaden your views based on fresh knowledge and contract with others who know more about a topic than you do. It can also help you become more empathetic as you learn more about different situations.

Take initiative to solve problems at work or volunteer for the new assignment which will stretch your current capabilities. Take advantage of formal learning opportunities, seek out mentors who can coach you or colleagues from whom you can learn when you’re in the trenches together.

#3 – Connect and Socialize

One of the number one things people say they love about their work is the connection they create with colleagues. In fact, in a study by LiveCareer, a primary reason people expended effort in their work was because of relationships with coworkers. Unfortunately, mental health has deteriorated as people have had more distance from friends, family and coworkers in the last few years.

But people crave a feeling of community with each other, and in fact research has repeatedly shown having a couple close friends contributes to physical and emotional health and longevity—sometimes to a greater extent than choices about diet, exercise or smoking. So it makes sense that socializing with coworkers and spending time with friends were primary ways people in the study enhanced their brain health.

Reach out to friends, stay in touch and be intentional about maintaining relationships with those you value most. In addition, invite colleagues to work on projects together and join affinity groups at work. Volunteer in your town and look for ways to roll up sleeves and contribute your skills and talents to projects that matter to you.

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need connections for better brain health—just in different amounts and proportions. Nurture friendships and relationships in the same way you make great choices about other aspects of your life.

#4 – Be Intentional About How You Work

According to the study, there are certain ways you can work which will also help you build better brain health.

  • Take Physical Breaks. In the study, when people took physical breaks, they had better overall brain health, and they also reported it was the best thing they could do to enhance their memory and productivity. And taking physical breaks during the workday was one of the best things they could do to improve their experience of work. So, get away from your desk, take a walk, stand up or stretch.
  • Meditate. When people reported meditating more frequently, they also reported greater brain health overall. And they found it had a positive effect especially on the quality of their sleep. It was also one of the activities which was best for the work experience as well. So, consider meditating as you’re starting your workday or over a brief break in the midst of your efforts.
  • Take Mental Breaks. People reported that taking mental breaks during the workday was especially helpful to reduce stress and increase satisfaction at work. You could combine a mental break with meditation or physical breaks, or you could just plan mental breaks on their own as well. If you’re working intensively on a project, set an alarm so you take a few moments partway through to pause, be quiet and recenter. Or if you’re solving a problem with your team, agree to step away now and then to break from the action and give your brain a few moments to reset and refresh.

All kinds of healthy habits nurture brain health at work.

#5 – Nurture Healthy Habits

In addition to work-related elements of your happiness and satisfaction, you can also build your brain health by nurturing healthy habits which affect you more generally. Interesting research has shown that when you’re happier outside of work, you’ll actually perceive greater happiness within your work—so invest in yourself. People in the study found these habits were the greatest contributors to brain health:

  • Healthy eating (28%)
  • Exercising (20%)
  • Leisure activities (20%)
  • Following a morning routine (18%)
  • Spending time outdoors (17%)
  • Eating a healthy breakfast (15%)
  • Going to bed early (14%)

In addition to general positive effects of eating a healthy breakfast, people also said this habit was the greatest contributor to specific aspects of brain health including focus and mood.

You may not want to take on all of these healthy habits at once, but you can reflect on which seem possible to start with. Accomplish those and then add more when you have integrated them into your lifestyle. Also consider how you can pair current habits with the new habits you want to build.

For example, exercise is correlated with greater happiness, and spending time in nature is linked with higher levels of joy and happiness. You could choose to focus on these and decide to walk or bike to work one day a week. Or if you’re working from home, you could make a point of taking a walk in the nearby park over your lunch hour.

A Word on Quiet Quitting

Interestingly, quiet quitting had a negative effect on brain health. When people engaged in quiet quitting, they experienced worsening memory, focus, quality of sleep, mood, productivity and creativity.

Of course, it depends on how you define quiet quitting. If you’re rejecting hustle culture and ensuring you take time for yourself, great. But if you’re quietly quitting by removing yourself from your work, giving up, failing to do your fair share for the team, being passive aggressive or slacking, you won’t do yourself any favors—since these are opposite of what contributes to brain health and happiness.

If you’re unhappy, take action, stretch your skills, connect with others and make choices about how you work and live—all of these will help you feel empowered and will have positive effects on your overall wellbeing. No one expects you to stay in a negative situation, but taking ownership for your next steps is powerful and important for your sense of self and your brain health as well.

Getting Healthy

Brain health is key to all kinds of quality in work and life—from fulfillment and satisfaction to rewarding relationships and even recognition. Reflect on how you’re doing and how you can get better—and then make choices which enhance your experiences.

*This article first appeared on the Forbes website

*Tracey Brower is a Ph.D. sociologist and the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work exploring happiness, fulfillment and work-life. 

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