Leadership Development Facilitator and Coach Full Potential Group
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How brain fitness can aid a safer workplace

Mistakes at work could be avoided through training our brains to better deal with stressful situations.

27th Oct 2020
Leadership Development Facilitator and Coach Full Potential Group
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Shot of a young businessman experiencing stress during late night at work
iStock/PeopleImages

In 2018–19, 28.2 million working days were lost in the UK due to work-related illness and workplace injury, according to the Health and Safety Executive – and human error contributes significantly to these events. People make mistakes when they are tired or stressed and/or when the environments they are working in are not ‘brain-friendly,’ causing their brains to not function successfully. We can reduce that risk by understanding how our brains work and the drivers that improve neuro agility.

The more agile our brains the better we learn and cope in stressful situations, which improves our decision making and reduces the risk of errors.

Our personal neurological design

Our brains are divided into two hemispheres. The right hemisphere is responsible for long-term visual memories, processes information in a random, holistic way with a focus on the ‘big picture’, and learns best through pictures and illustrations. The left focuses on detail, structure and fact-based content, taking a logical and analytical approach to processing information. It learns best through language and words.

We use both hemispheres, sometimes simultaneously, more often alternately. We typically have a ‘dominant’ hemisphere, which means the functioning associated with that hemisphere ‘leads the way’ in how we take in information, process it to make decisions and take action.

The less dominant hemisphere ‘follows’ – we use the functions associated with that one in a more passive way.

Stress can ‘shut down’ our less dominant hemisphere so we lose access to the functions of that side of our brain.

Similarly, we have dominant eyes, ears and hands, and each one is responsible for specific sensory awareness, for example:

  • Left eye – focuses on colour, shape and movement – the “big picture” eye

  • Left ear – listens for emotions and non-verbal content – HOW things are said

  • Left hand – used for non-verbal communication, gestures

  • Right eye – focuses on detail, words, sequential and linear information

  • Right ear – listens for facts, content of speech/lyrics – WHAT is said

  • Right hand – used for fine motor activities, communicating through writing

These senses are controlled by the opposite hemisphere – so a dominant right hand is controlled by the left brain hemisphere and so on. This dominance pattern differs from person to person. It’s our own blueprint for learning, thinking and how we behave, because we will all process information and learn differently.

In a relaxed state we’re able to benefit from the complementary functions of both hemispheres and sensory awareness, meaning we’re able to receive and process a wide variety of information.

What about in stressful situations?

This presents issues when we’re faced with stress, however, as stress reduces our ability to use our brains effectively, as explained in my previous article Handling stress to help you learn better. Stress can ‘shut down’ our less dominant hemisphere so we lose access to the functions of that side of our brain. If we have a dominant eye, ear or hand that is controlled by that hemisphere, we may not be able to use them successfully. So we may simply not see or hear important information to make good quality decisions, or to act safely.  

For example...

Person A is right brain dominant, (meaning they typically focus on overall meaning and big picture information) and right ear dominant (which is controlled by the left hemisphere and listens to factual information).

Under stress, their ability to listen to detailed information will be hindered, as their left, non-dominant hemisphere will be ‘switched off’. As a result, they may miss vital information and instructions provided verbally.

Reducing stress and fatigue are particularly significant when it comes to reducing the risk of human error.

Person B is also right brain dominant and has a dominant right eye, meaning they typically look for linear, sequential information. Their dominant eye is controlled by the left hemisphere, and if they lose access to this functioning under stress they may fail to take in detailed information in written format.

There are neuroscientific tools that will help you and your teams understand more about your own dominance patterns, what this means for your risk of error, and how to manage these.

Factors that support brain fitness

Irrespective of our natural dominance patterns, we can all improve our ‘brain fitness,’ which then reduces the impact of the ‘switch off’ during stress so that we benefit from the functioning of our whole brain and minimise our risk of making mistakes.

Here are some tips to give your brain a workout, which will help improve your use of your non-dominant hemisphere and develop your ability to use both hemispheres simultaneously (‘bilateral functioning’):

  • Physical activities that require you to cross the body’s midline, (an imaginary line that divides the body into right and left), reaching across the middle of the body with the arms and the legs, such as touching the opposite elbow and knee, or crossing one foot over the other while walking sideways

  • Swimming, running, dancing, aerobics and even climbing the stairs, which require using alternating movements 

  • Playing a musical instrument

  • Solving puzzles like crosswords, Sudoku and online brain training games

In addition to this, a number of drivers impact our degree of brain fitness, including sleep, stress, movement and attitude.

To find out more about these factors and how they affect us, see my article on Brain Agility - maximise your learning investment and future proof your talent.

Maximising all of these drivers will have a beneficial effect on overall brain fitness. Reducing stress and fatigue are particularly significant when it comes to reducing the risk of human error. It is often a root cause of major accidents with fatigue reported to be implicated in 20% of accidents on major roads, costing the UK £115 - £240 million per year in work accidents alone.

What does this mean for L&D professionals?

We can encourage employers to focus on factors that support safe working by:

  • Building a neuroscientific assessment tool into development programmes to raise awareness of the impact of brain fitness

  • Increasing leaders’ understanding on the impact of stress and fatigue on the brain and on people in frontline roles, where many errors and accidents can occur

  • Building brain fitness exercises such as physical activity, puzzles and problem solving into learning events to then take back into the workplace, to develop concentration, reduce stress and combat fatigue

  • Contributing to the development of a learning culture where people explore causes of failure in order to learn from their mistakes

As Matthew Syed advises, in Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes--But Some Do: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” 

Interested in this topic? Read How to deal with workplace stress as a new leader.

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