Achieve More with Less Stress – A Brain Based Approach

Image of a brain
  • Why are our brains exploding at the moment?
  • Why are 50% of managers worried about staff being on sick leave due to the mental health impacts of working in lockdown?
  • Why are over 50% of people concerned about having the ability to manage stress?

The answer to these questions and how we can achieve more with less stress can be found by understanding a little about how our brains work:

The brain has a very simple organising principle which is to maximise pleasure and minimise danger.  All information received into the brain is perceived as being a threat or a reward.  We move towards pleasure and away from threat/pain.  Threats are processed faster; they are stronger and the effects last longer in the brain.

The other fact we should be aware of is that:

The status of the limbic system (our emotional brain) is 5 times that of the Pre Frontal Cortex (our cognitive, rational or executive brain).Which means that it is so much easier for our emotional brains to override our logical, thinking brain. Therefore, when our brains perceive a threat, it is the emotional brain which engages and takes over control of our thinking. By having an understanding of how the brain works, we can have a choice and decide to let the emotional brain stay in control or we can take control, re-engage our logical thinking and reduce our level of stress.

When we look at threats, they can be classified in three levels:

Level 1 – Occurs when the threat is in the broader environment, we become more alert than usual. For example, back in February when we first heard of Covid-19 in China, we were concerned but not alarmed as the threat was a long way from us.

Level 2 – Occurs, when the threat comes closer to home, the “alarming” brain kicks in. For example, when Covid-19 hit our shores and started spreading through the capital.

Level 3 – Occurs when the threat is in your street the “survival” instincts kick in.  Perhaps you know someone who is ill with the virus or you may have been furloughed.  We move into a panic situation and our mental and general health starts to be challenged.

At the beginning of lockdown we saw the effects of the level 3 threat with the mass hysteria and panic buying and as the weeks have gone by we have seen the level fluctuate between 3 and 2 as we started to feel more secure by staying at home and social distancing and then starting to come out of lockdown, and local restrictions being put in place.

If I was asked to give one piece of wisdom to an aspiring leader, to help them understand what their team are experiencing and how they can achieve more with less stress, I would say always think “SCARF”.  If you want to enable people to be at their best, to feel psychologically safe then being aware of the ‘SCARF’ Model and leveraging the power of THREAT and REWARD’s is a must.

The SCARF Model as defined by Dr David Rock (2008):

The SCARF model consists of the five social domains which activate either a threat, (sometimes referred to as stress) or a reward response depending upon the situation. An understanding of the these five domains, enables leaders to find ways in which they can create conditions likely to trigger a “Reward” response and avoid situations where a “Threat” or “Stress” response is more likely.

STATUS – feeling of being valued, asked for an opinion, perception of how we rank ourselves against our best self, how we perceive others rank us against colleagues.

CERTAINTY – our ability to predict what is going to happen.  Uncertainty is classed as a very strong threat.

AUTONOMY – perception of how much control we have

RELATEDNESS – sense of belonging, being part of the “In Group”, knowing where you fit in the team and organisation

FAIRNESS – perception of fair exchange

If the SCARF domains are not managed it can lead to overwhelm, reactive thinking, minimal creativity / collaboration, tunnel vision and shutting down of the ability to see options.

However, if we manage SCARF domains it can enable engagement and motivation, high levels of focus and periods of peak performance.

One of the biggest challenges right now is that there are very few people alive who have had to live with anything similar to the situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are living and working in a situation of huge uncertainty and unknown, and we have little experience to fall back on.

Good leadership is critical to get our people and our organisations through the pandemic and to establish the next normal.  Leaders have messages to cascade down to anyone who manages people and will need to help them mentally prepare for the unknown.  Leaders will need to steer their people towards taking adaptive actions, which will enable them to achieve more with less stress, even during the toughest of times.

There are three types of action, people can take:

Under-reacting – Say and do nothing, minimal empathy, underplaying the situation

Adaptiveempathise, help people prepare for the worst

Over-reacting – Obsessing, creating panic

Let’s relate the current situation to the SCARF model and look at what adaptive behaviour may look like:

Status – There is probably not a lot to be done in the current situation

Certainty – find ways of creating certainty often and well.  Communicating often and well can go a long way.  Setting expectations and being implicit rather than explicit.  Every time you have a bit of certainty it should be shared – little and often is the key to creating certainty rewards

Autonomy – Unexpected rewards are the strongest.  Think how you can create unexpected autonomy.  Allow flexibility.  In challenging times, we need principles to guide people rather than rules to control people.

Relatedness – This is where you can get some of the strongest rewards.  Encourage team members to think creatively.  Think about the workplace rituals that used to take place and ask how we can replicate these in the current environment.

Fairness – Could have a major impact as we start to move into new phases of restrictions.  Leaders will need to think of meaningful things they can do for people to even out feelings of perceived unfairness.  What can be done to reduce fairness threats and increase fairness rewards?

Some of the other ways in which we can apply learnings from neuroscience to help us through the current situation and achieve more with less stress:

You need to take control of what you are focusing on and begin choosing where you place your focus.  If you or your colleagues start to dwell on the things that are different, things which cannot be done at the moment, rising unemployment or any of the many things creating worry and concern at the moment, you can change what you or your colleagues are focusing upon.  By helping people to think about the future, the vision they would like, the solutions that are required and the setting of achievable targets to start taking steps towards, it is possible to quickly move focus and start moving away from the Threat or Stress towards a Reward state, which will help keep the cognitive thinking brain open. 

Enabling ha-ha moments of insights is key to successfully moving forward and establishing the next norm.  Insights are when a non-obvious solution from the non-conscious mind suddenly emerges into awareness and combines data in a new way, forming a neural pathway.  Insights provide solutions, engagement and change but only 10% of insights occur at work; the majority of people have insights when they are out walking, in the shower, listening to music etc i.e. when they are in a relaxed state. The challenge for leaders is to provide a psychologically safe space where team members will feel comfortable, safe and relaxed, to enable moments of insight. The creation of insights can be supported by facilitating quiet moments, looking inwards, managing exposure to threats, evoking a position of emotion, and by stopping trying to solve a problem or come up with an idea. It is better to focus on creating an environment where insights can occur naturally rather than trying to force an answer or solution.

The way our mind perceives change is down to our mindset.  Change can be perceived as a threat (distress) or a challenge which creates Eustress (good stress).

You may already be familiar with the work of Heidi Grant and Carol Dweck around fixed and growth mindset.

Fixed mindsets are needed for survival and in the right situation they are good as they are about proof, demonstrating skills and performing better than others, but in the unprecedented times we are in, a growth mindset is required as they see challenges not threats, they are creative, resilient, embrace challenges, are persistent and seek feedback, leading to superior levels of performance and wellbeing.

It is possible to change our mindset by what we do, how we do it and when we do it.  Techniques which can help to change our mindset include:

  • Having pre-determined behaviours when specific conditions arise
  • Labelling – attaching a single word to an emotion
  • Look at the situation in a different way – through the eyes of another
  • Direct experience – be mindful of your wandering mind, be present in the moment, here and now.

In these unprecedented times, it we want to achieve more with less stress, we need to get the best from our brains, it is important that we look after them. Download a copy of our 8 key habits for a healthy mind tips sheet.

In the meantime, here are five few simple things you can start doing today to leverage the power of your mind and help you to achieve more with less stress

  • Stop multi-tasking – its counter-productive and raises stress levels
  • Take regular breaks – your mind needs a break every 90 minutes
  • Stop and take a lunch break away from your workspace
  • Manage your thoughts – take responsibility for what you focus on – remember that where you place your attention is what you will get
  • Build technology free times into your day – give your brain some down time

If you would like to find out more about how you can achieve more with less stress, during these challenging times, you can watch our webinar here.