Health and safety requires a long-term approach that sometimes conflicts with the short-term needs of both employer and employee. Stefan Imjker thinks he has the answer

A recent survey of consultancy firm Morgan Redwood revealed that worker morale dropped significantly between 2009 and 2015. This was alarming news, since worker morale is the direct driver of employee productivity.

The recent economic crisis left organizations with fewer staff than before. Also we see increasing customer demands in both the public and private sector that organizations need to satisfy. You could argue that worker morale has never been more critical.

In the Morgan Redwood survey there was a large discrepancy between the priorities of management and the factors driving low worker morale. Management prioritizes improving the entrepreneurial culture and team work, whilst three important factors contributing to a lower morale were poor work-life balance, increasing pressure to perform more during a workday and increasing general work stress levels.

Fewer staff need to have a deadline focus to complete large amounts of work and at the same time need to be creative in order to respond meaningfully to a rapidly changing environment. If we could boost worker morale and solve the concentration-creativity paradox, maybe we could solve the short-term needs of both employer and employee.

The main cause of low worker morale is stress. Stress is the situation in which a person feels a lack of control over a situation. Stress is needed for a deep focus on one thing – think about a deadline forcing you to action. On the other hand, stress kills creativity, since for creativity the requirement is to think about a lot of things in a general sense and combing them in an unusual way. Creativity is what employees with too many tasks need and what organizations need to respond to changing customer demands. We need to find a way to de-stress and enhance creativity.

What do you do to solve a really hard problem at work? Stick at it or leave the problem for a while and maybe get a good night’s sleep? And when do you often get that ‘Aha!’ moment of sudden insight? Science tells us these moments are usually when you are not working. You can’t push your brain to creativity, but you can help it.

Ten minutes of walking, especially in the afternoon, changes the way you look at problems and increases creativity. You provide your brain, especially the unconscious parts, some time for reflection on their own while walking breaks down your stress hormones. Your brain calms down and gets thinking time. That’s where creativity comes from. In order to solve a really hard problem, you’re better walking away from it.

Creativity is closely related to our memory. If we can’t remember things by heart, how can we then combine them in an unusual way? In our brain we have a seahorse like structure which is called the hippocampus and is located just above your ear. This structure is essential in storing and remembering past experiences. During their years of training, cab drivers in London show an increase in cell density in their hippocampus, especially among those who pass the exam. So learning strengthens the hippocampus, like gym work strengthens a muscle. When we are in a gym we generally do an exercise, take some rest, and perform maybe two or three more sets with some rest in between. Then we rest for a day or two before working out again. We do this so our muscles have the chance to get stronger. Not taking enough rest time in between leads to injury: our muscles get weaker.

In the workplace this works the same way. Working under high stress levels makes your hippocampus actually weaker. Studies have shown that new brain cells formed in the hippocampus literally die off in a situation of constant stress. If stress damages your creativity muscle, it makes sense to add some breaks.

It has been known for some years that our concentration cannot be extended for hours. Our reading comprehension drops off sharply after an hour, filling out forms by combining data goes slower after an hour and keeping the pace constant results in more mistakes being made.

Employees who do not take breaks are doing a disservice to themselves and their organizations. First, this leads to lower concentration levels. The pace of work drops and/or more rework needs to be done to correct mistakes. It takes longer to finish tasks. In addition, the number of tasks piles up. Not walking away from work leads to lower creativity levels. Reflection on the available tasks and the most important is non-existent.

‘Don’t complain, just work harder’ is the motto. In the end we are working longer and longer hours. We have less downtime to work on the nicer things in life like hobbies, families and friends. Because there is less downtime after work, and no time to work out after work, stress levels remain higher. This causes sleeping problems. And for high performance we need at least seven hours of sleep. Little wonder, then, that poor work-life balance and high work stress levels are being reported. The fix is taking more breaks, including down time after work, and move around more.

The benefits of this approach are well known in the traditional health and safety realm. Taking breaks during VDU work alleviates discomfort and pain. Movement does as well. Preventing too much time working is a preventative action for burn-out. Sitting has been declared the ‘new smoking’ by British-born professor James Levine. Sitting all day shortens your life by years. Hot off the shelf research from the US with subjects that wore measurement devices to record movement throughout the day shows that we can balance the negative effects of sitting by walking two minutes for every hour we are awake. To live a few years longer, start taking some small walking breaks throughout your working day.

We need to change how employees and organizations are working. They need to take more breaks in the first place. Most employees know it is important to take breaks, but they simply get caught up in work and forget to take them. Reminders are simply needed. This is where software such as CtrlWORK from Efficiency Software can help employees. CtrlWORK informs employees about the positive effects of taking breaks on concentration, creativity, health and, most importantly reminds them to take a break.

We need to change the way we work by taking more breaks and moving more. Employees will get their work-life balance back by taking more breaks and walking more during work and having more downtime in general. Organizations will benefit from the enhanced concentration and creativity by boosting worker morale, employee productivity and responding better to the rapidly changing customer demands.

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