The Role of Organizational Neuroscience in Human Resources

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I am a former medical doctor, with a PhD in neuroscience. For ten years I have been running a global consultancy that specialises in applying neuroscience to organisations, teams and leaders. In my opinion a good understanding of cognitive science is key to bringing HR into a more strategic role as companies innovate into an uncertain and rapidly changing future.

“Being an HR executive, supporting other managers to manage their people as well as looking after your own team, it’s of paramount importance your brain is in peak condition”

It’s also important that you understand how to get the best out of other people’s brains. Prioritising wellbeing is the first step on the road to achieving this, but it’s worrying how often senior managers neglect this, compromising on rest, nutrition, exercise and recovery by prioritising work over everything else, without realising that this comes at a huge cost to their (and their team’s) cognitive performance. Small lifestyle changes can reap big rewards in terms of our focus, and ability to use our brain to think with agility, drawing fully on its full resources at all times.

Here’s a list of the fundamentals of self-care for HR managers wanting to optimise brainpower:

Rest your brain

Sleeping less than the 7-8 hours per night that is optimal for most adults (according to a recent report by America’s National Sleep Foundation, based on the advice of 18 leading sleep scientists) is not sustainable for 98-99% of the human population. Failure to fulfil this quota impacts on a whole host of measures of brain function.

The cleansing system of the brain, known as the glymphatic system, takes 7-8 hours to flush toxins out of the brain. These build up over time due to oxidative processes particularly stress and alcohol and lead to the symptoms of dementia. It’s not surprising, then that a whole night’s missed sleep has been proven to impact on IQ, temporarily reducing it by 5-8 points. Sleep deprivation is also linked to increased brain reactivity, which means that responses are more likely to come from the primitive part of the brain, rather than the prefrontal cortex, bad news when you’re managing people and advising other managers on how to negotiate complex interpersonal situations within a business. A well-rested brain will be able to make better decisions, respond more quickly to stimuli and will have better memory recall than a brain that is low on sleep. You can’t afford to skimp on it.

Fuel your thinking

Our brain only weighs 2-3kg but uses up 25-30% of what we eat and cannot store fuel for later. Research shows that being hungry impacts significantly on decision making and unconscious bias. This can impact on big picture decisions as well as minor ones. Judges, for example, are more likely to grant parole early in the day or just after lunch, when they are more energised and aren’t feeling hungry. The same goes for you and the decisions you make on a daily basis. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, rich in vegetables, with some wholegrains (they contain all the essential amino acids which are the building blocks of cells), and a healthy quantity of good fats, has a huge impact on the brain.

Hydrate your neurons

The brain is 78% water, so it’s easy to understand how brain function directly relates to hydration levels. A 1-3% decrease in hydration levels can negatively impact our focus, attention and memory. This is why it is essential that every child carries a bottle of water in their school bag. By the time you notice you are thirsty or have dry lips, you are way more than 3% dehydrated. Like driving a car without topping up the water tank, the brain simply cannot send the chemical and electrical messages it needs to in a dehydrated environment. If you don’t drink enough water, your body will be unable to carry out basic functions and the first area to be drained of this vital resource are attention and memory, as the brain does not see them as vital to survival. A 2015 study found that dehydration was shown to be akin to driving at the legal alcohol limit in terms of its impact on concentration and reflexes.

Oxygenate your body

Exercise not only energises your body and brain, causing you to breathe more deeply which oxygenates cells throughout your body, it has also been found to improve neuroplasticity itself. It counts as one of the factors of what neuroscientists call ‘environmental enrichment,’ for the brain, and research shows that exercise can impact on the survival and integration of cells generated into our neuronal circuitry.

A well exercised body ensures the brain is one where there is healthy supply of optimally functioning neurons. Regular exercise has a host of tangible health benefits for the brain. Those who exercise have better executive functions (emotional regulation, bias suppression, complex problem solving and flexible thinking) and are better able to manage task-switching (Voss, Nagamastu, et al, 2011). So, what’s the best workout for your brain? Exercise you enjoy is more likely to benefit your brain than a workout that feels like too much effort, though, so pick something you like to do!

Brain-body connection Meditation, yoga and other mindfulness activities such as mindful eating, mindful walking or prayer improve people’s mental resilience making them more immune to stress, physical illness and burnout. In the workplace this shows up as better listening skills, paying attention, good eye-contact and more team bonding and alignment to the values and mission of the company. With all these physiological factors in place we see the psychology of success and increased ability to deal with and embrace change.

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Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information. Educated at Oxford University and King’s College London, her role as Faculty at MIT and King’s College London and as guest lecturer at Oxford SAID ensures that she remains at the forefront of the latest developments in her sector. Tara’s clients include FTSE100, Fortune 500 and Magic Circle firms, as well as UHNWI entrepreneurs. She specialises in sectors that face unusual levels of stress or change. Tara Swart is also lead Author of ‘Neuroscience for Leadership’ and forthcoming book ‘The Source – open your mind, change your life’.

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