It’s All in Your Head: Workplace Stress and the Brain’s Drain

It’s All in Your Head: Workplace Stress and the Brain’s Drain

Modern neuroscience tells us a great deal about how the human brain functions in specific situations and environments. One of the most enlightening things that neuroscience has to teach organizational leaders is that the brain literally does not differentiate between an emotional and a physical threat.

Experienced leaders and managers likely realize that illness-related absences increase in stressful work situations. For those of us who were raised in the “old school” industrial-style of management and leadership, we might be tempted to tell employees to suck it up, to get over it and get back to work. We might suspect that complaints of illness are excuses to avoid difficult situations rather than dealing with them.

And you know what? That’s kind of true. Stress-related illness really is all in one’s head.

The Reptile in All of Us

Understanding workplace stress is critical to managing it and leading stressed-out staff through difficult situations and toward positive productivity. To understand stress, you first need to understand the basic structure of the brain. We like to use a hand as an analogy of the brain’s composition:

Think of the base of the hand as the root of the brain—the part of the human brain that has been evolving since the dawn or reptiles. This part of the brain is devoted to survival. It controls our vital functions like heart rate and breathing. It ensures that the brain has faculty and energies always available to react to threats.


The centre of the hand stands in for the Limbic System, which evolved later as mammals evolved. The Limbic System records memories and makes judgements about experiences. It is responsible for human emotion and judgement and it craves social contact with other humans and mammals to feel secure.

The newest part of the brain to evolve is the prefrontal, or neocortex. It developed first in primates and makes up the largest part of the human brain. It’s responsible for what are often called “executive” functions: complex thought, rational, language, and so on. It is designed to create and build those needed emotional relationships.

The good news is that the newest, rational part of the brain is the most plastic—the most flexible and most able to learn and change. The bad news is that it’s relatively young and is easily hijacked by the Limbic and Reptilian parts of the brain.

There’s still a reptile in each of us, and it’s a powerful animal—capable of overriding rational thought and triggering physical reactions to perceived threats. It has the power to hijack the nervous system, shut down the prefrontal cortex and reroute all of the body’s resources to fighting or fleeing.


The Brain-Based Workplace

Although you, your staff and organization are not exposed to constant physical threats to survival in the way that our predecessors were, the Reptilian brain isn’t capable of recognizing it. Avoidance is a deep-rooted neural response that every human brain is hardwired to make when it feels threatened. Neuroscience has shown that the brain reacts in exactly the same ways to physical pain as it does to social pain or merely perceived threats. Among other things, the old brain responds to these threats by suppressing the immune system. It literally drains the body of the ability to heal itself.

So you know that nagging headache, that cold that won’t go away, that weakness in your muscles or bones that seems to have started sometime around the first organizational restructuring, or the last workplace conflict with the new manager, or the third time your boss reprimanded you for not getting it right? It really IS all in your head.

And because it’s in your head it’s also in your body. But because it’s in your head, you can also address it. This may be the most powerful way that neuroscience is helping organizations and leaders to become more effective: by understanding the brain’s functions we can take steps to ensure the brain is getting what it needs to remain productive and healthy even when surrounded by constant stressors.

Neuroscience also shows us that the biggest part of the brain is elastic and plastic. It can change and learn infinitely—there is no limit to its abilities to learn to think, react and adapt differently. It just needs to be trained to do so—to be shown the way.

If you need new tools to manage workplace stress for yourself, your team, your organization or a loved one, we’d love to talk to you. Our first consultation is always free. Talk to us.

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