The importance of switching off from work

Dr Stan Rodksi is a cognitive neuroscientist specialising in the peak performance of the brain. His research in stress evaluation has seen him work closely with some of Australia and the world’s most successful private, school and sporting organisations, including AFL, NRL and Olympic athletes.

At a recent ANZ event, he took some time out to discuss the importance of brain health with BlueNotes. Below are the edited highlights of that discussion.

"With modern daily work routines, staff can find themselves turned on all the time"
Dr Stan Rodksi, Cognitive neuroscientist

Matt Ormiston: You’ve worked a lot on the brain, stress evaluation and improvement. In an environment where staff are spending an increasing amount of time at work, how important is it for business to ensure workers don’t burn out?

Dr Stan Rodksi: It’s very important. We’re finding burnout is a serious issue, both for productivity for workers but also their health.

We have to help people understand there’s more to this than just time management - this is about our energy management. This is a very deep and primal part of our brain which doesn’t care about time. It just turns on and turns off according to getting something done.

With modern daily work routines, staff can find themselves turned on all the time. Our brain never replenishes that energy – and we need to learn how to do that. 

When you are under pressure, which is what happens a lot at work, you need to understand how to work your energy to be able to get the result you need. You are more susceptible to making mistakes when you are under pressure.

Dr Stan Rodski

Ormiston: So what are the lessons there for staff and leaders, especially with smart devices which mean we can be at work when we’re not physically ‘at work’?

Rodksi: You’re right, smart devices are always on.  Even if they are not on, we still worry about them. Consider how you feel on holidays when you never receive an email. You’re almost waiting for one.

Our brain is so conditioned to being turned on all the time. We have to do so many things and we have to do them quicker - it’s part of the digital age. So we have to get smarter and we can use the principles of energy management to do so.

Ormiston: So what are some simple ways to ensure we are managing these energies effectively?  

Rodksi: There are a number of steps to proper energy management. The first of which is around getting our balance right.

I talk about using mini-break, or microbreak. In this case a worker can stop, blow out, breathe in, just relax their brain and get the nastiness out.

Once you’ve found that balance you can look at doing some active things. One of the most common work energy problems at a physical level is we sit too much. We’ve got to get up and move around.

Humans are an organism built for 20 kilometres of running every day. How many of us do that? Even walking 20kms would send most of us over the edge.

Yet researchers at Harvard have found every second you move you improve your energy, the function of your brain, your lungs and your heart. So get up, move around – stop sitting all the time.

The second of those energies is the emotional one. We all know emotions drain us – you get an email, or overhear something, or there’s something going on at home.

You think about it all the time. What we have to do is learn to turn that off – to learn that for every negative motion (and we humans have a lot of them) we need three positives. And this process can be helped along with the right techniques.

Ormiston: How important is maintaining mental strength through these steps?

Rodksi: It’s easy to sometimes find you are not challenging yourself mentally at work. And you know, we need to do that.

Actually having the willpower to complete tasks can be difficult. If we build up our willpower we can have the strength to stop people interrupting us. We can take ourselves offline for 20 minutes and knock off a project.

Mental energy is built through willpower. Willpower is the only brain function that operates like muscle.

The final energy area is this spiritual or mindful energy. It’s our core values system. You only have to know if you are forced to do something that’s against your core values, you can feel the energy pour out of you.

You have to understand what your values are. If you don’t like people being late to meetings, you value timeliness. If timeliness is poor around you, your energy can be zapped.

It’s a new way of thinking, but it is based around neuroscience.

Matt Ormiston is head of tech, CorpOptimisation, TSO at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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