Saturday, March 7, 2015

Meditation in the workplace

Ommm -> Meditation at Work
The workplace is a novel and complex environment and our brains love it.  Except - when we are too stressed out to think clearly.  Corporations spend 60% of their after tax profits on healthcare for their employees.  This is a direct result of workplace stress.  Stress causes havoc within our bodies and brains.  It can be directly responsible for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, lower immune function, and psychological disorders.  The leading causes of workplace stress include:
·       Low salaries
·       Heavy workload
·       Lack of opportunities
·       Uncertain job expectations
·       Long hours                                            (Francis,C. 2013)
The impact on the bottom line comes down to these assumptions:
·       Stressed out employees generally are less productive.
·       Stress leads to poor health and greater healthcare expenditures.
·       There is less cooperation and teamwork leading to greater inefficiency.
·       More interpersonal conflicts among employees which is counterproductive.
·       Stress leads to poor communication, which then leads to inefficiency.
·       Stressed out employees are more preoccupied with their personal problems than the company’s objectives.
·       Stressed out employees aren’t capable of seeing the bigger picture (i.e. company goals).
(Francis, C. 2013)
Does this resonate with you?  I know I have worked in this type of environment.  It is brutal to go through day after day with this stress weighing you down.  The ultimate result is burnout.  No one wins in this environment.  If we want to contain healthcare expenditures we need to live healthier lifestyles by reducing stress levels.
Companies cannot afford to assume these losses consistently.  Wellness programs are designed to measure physical indicators of chronic disease health problems.  They are able to counsel employees and put together action plans for a healthy lifestyle.  Although wellness programs can save healthcare dollars there is a problem with employee engagement.  These programs can actually turn out to be another source of stress.  Wellness programs still don’t address the initial cause of workplace chronic disease because they don’t address the stress component of the workplace.  However, when a mindfulness meditation program is integrated into the workplace culture, there is a chance of reducing stress levels on an individual basis.  The employee can learn to be resilient in the face of stress.  A mindfulness meditation practice has the ability to:
·       Lower stress
·       Improve immune system function
·       Live a healthier lifestyle
·       Improve cognitive abilities                           (The Mindfulness Meditation Institute)
Incorporating mindfulness meditation training into organizational development strategies will pay off in numerous ways including employee performance.  Employees practicing mindfulness meditation will have:
·       Increased ability to cope with stress and be more resilient to workplace pressures
·       Increased ability to focus - a core element of mindful practice is training for concentration
·       Improved cognitive abilities – think with a clear mind which can lead to greater complex problem solving and decision-making capabilities
·       Better communication skills – deep listening and mindful speech will improve communication
·       Greater systems thinking – employees are able to understand wider implications of their actions; an understanding that things are interconnected
·       Improved self confidence – through greater self awareness employees will discover their true potential
·       More effective leadership – they will become people with the necessary skills and integrity to take on more responsibility
Meditation seems like it is the best thing since sliced bread!  These outcomes from meditation practice have been documented in companies like Apple, Yahoo, Google, Texas Instruments, McKinsey Consulting, Deutsch Bank, and Hughes Aircraft.  It is hard to question the effectiveness of meditation when it has found success in very successful companies.  Research is ongoing on meditation but it continues to validate the outcomes of the practice.  With our high intensity environment, speed of communication and overwhelming amount of information that we are exposed to everyday, meditation is the perfect practice for brain health.
Francis, Charles (2013). Mindfulness in the workplace.

Pat Faust
Director Corporate Brain Health
Brain Health Center

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Leadership, Gender, and the Brain

The Difference Between Women’s and Men’s Brains:  Changing the Perspective of Leadership
Ah, our magnificent brains:  that three pound organ that rests between our ears.  It dictates who we are what we do, how and what we think and we have no idea how it works.  To understand the differences in behavior and leadership styles that men and women exhibit in the workplace, it is necessary to go to the point of origin – the brain.

When it comes to the brains of women and men the differences are quite remarkable.   The variances between the female and male brain begin in their development in the uterus.  Before birth, the female brain is flushed with estrogen hormones, while the male brain is washed with testosterone.  As such, baby girls are more attentive to eye contact with their mothers while baby boys are more interested in the activity going on around them.

It is important to understand the workings of the brain in order to comprehend how women and men react differently in life and in the workplace.  There are actual differences in the brain structure between women and men.  There are key parts of the brain that are responsible for our ability to function in the working world.
The Amygdala
The amygdala is a small almond shaped body located deep in the brain in the temporal lobe – behind each ear.  It has been shown to play a key role in processing emotions such as fear and pleasure.  The amygdala is larger in men’s’ brains than in women’s’ brains.  Also, mens’amygdales have testosterone receptors that heighten responses.  Since the amygdala stimulates competitiveness, this explains why men are 94 percent more likely than women to apply for a job with a salary potential that is dependent on out-performing their colleagues (upstart.bizjournalatwork).

Women and men react differently to the fear response of the amygdala.  When the signal of fight or flight is triggered, women respond by gathering in groups – they tend and befriend response.  Women are much better at reducing stress and feeling safe by connecting.  Men however, tend to withdrawal to themselves.  To quote Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster (Mean Girls at Work), “men are from the combat zone, women are from the support circle”.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is located in the front part of the brain behind the forehead.  It is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality, expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior.  It is the executive function system of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex is larger and matures faster in women than in men.
Women have more estrogen and less testosterone flowing through their brains enabling them to look for solutions to conflicts.  One other distinction is that estrogen promotes the stress response within the prefrontal cortex.  What this means is that when faced with a deadline, women will complete a project a week ahead of time in order to avoid the pressure and increased arousal a deadline brings.  Men however, will wait until the last minute so that they have the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinepherine actually push them to the finish.   With the combination of brain structure, hormones and neurotransmitters, it implies that women look for ways to compromise and serve the needs of others while men look for ways to come out on top.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex
This is another part of the rational decision-making center of the brain.  The anterior cingulated cortex governs thinking and emotion.  This is another region of the brain that is larger in women than in men.  The anterior cingulated cortex has been labeled the ‘worry wart’ part of the brain in women.  Its original function prompted women to be cautious and to protect their young.  However, in today’s workplace this action is looked at as a lack of confidence by women with no risk-taking skills – especially by men driven by competitive testosterone.
The Corpus Callosum
The brain is divided into two hemispheres.  The left side takes care of language and verbal skills and processes information in an orderly, logical way.  The right hemisphere deals with visual and spatial information as well as abstract thinking and emotional responses.  The corpus callosum connects both hemispheres.  It is thicker in women enabling them to use both sides of the brain in a connected way.  Because women can be more sensitive to and affected by harsh words and criticism in the workplace.
Finally – The Hippocampus
The hippocampus is a horseshoe shaped structure with one located in the left hemisphere and one located in the right hemisphere.  The structure is critical to memory formation.  It not only forms new memories but also sends memories to the appropriate area of the cerebral hemisphere for long-term storage as well retrieving them when necessary.  The hippocampus is larger and more active in women.  It is estrogen sensitive and acts as a relay station for processing memories into words.  Women actually have eleven percent more neurons than men in the brain center for language and hearing.  This bodes well for developing executive communication styles, and sensitive negotiations.  Women use language to develop consensus more efficiently than men.  Men’s’ brains are more specifically organized to focus intensely and not be distracted by superfluous information (, 2008).
One more word about the biology of the brain: in December 2013 a research report was released stating that the difference between women and men’s’ brains are actually hardwired.  The research on brain connectivity was conducted on 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males between the ages of 8 – 22.  The distinction between the genders became apparent after adolescence.  The study determined that females had many neural connections running from side to side between the right and left hemispheres in the prefrontal cortex areas.  The neural connections in the male brains ran from front to back on the same side of the brain.  So what does this mean?  Generally it means that women are better at memory, social cognition tests and intuition.  Men are better at spatial tasks, navigation and muscle control (Science Daily, Dec. 2013).

The differences between women and men’s’ brains are anatomical and physiological.  They kept our primitive ancestors alive and perhaps equipping us for the modern workplace!  Now that those differences have been scientifically validates the behavior of women in the workplace should not be regarded as weakness but as effective leadership models.  Science has made that decision.

Science has validates that women are equipped to be successful leaders in any capacity they choose.  Then why is there such a gender gap in the C-Suite in Corporate America and why are there so few female holding top political offices?  To answer these questions Peter J. Kuhn and Marie Claire Villenal, both economic professors, studied why women and men perform so differently in the workplace.  The study was set up like this:
·       Male and female students from undergraduate business and engineering schools were recruited to participate. They were to choose either team-based projects or solo projects.  The teams had to be evenly mixed with females and males
·       First round of the study:
-        Solo-based projects – there was no difference in the output between females and males
-        Team-based project – performance remained the same – therefore e no gender gap
-        When evaluated on confidence of team mates abilities – women showed ‘much higher’ expectations and confidence in their partners than men did
·       Second round of the study – incentivized output
-         Solo-based project – paid on an individual basis
-        Team-based: each team would be paid on output and they would choose their own teammates
-        Women were more likely to choose a team compensated project than men as soon as payment was s introduced
·       Conclusions:
-         Women’s more generous belief about their partners’ abilities account for all the gender gap choices
-        Knowledgeable women simply aren’t as confident in their own  abilities as men are, while men are too distrusting of their coworkers’ abilities and overconfident of their own
-        This accounts for an abundance of women in the nonprofit sector and found sparingly in top financial, economic, or political positions in modern society.  Women stay away from competitive environments and flock to positions involving collaboration.
Gender difference in the workplace: women prefer collaboration, while men distrust their coworkers and desire to work alone (Medical Daily, Aug. 22, 2013)
Dr. Daniel Amen has a book titled “Unleash the Power of the Female Brain” where he states that women are wired for success.  He makes a very compelling statement when he says that “the prefrontal cortex which controls judgment, organization, impulse control and planning is more active in women”, suggesting that women are wired to hold positions of power and run the world”.  Through his research Dr. Amen has identifies five particular strengths of women that play a key role in leadership: Empathy, Collaboration, Intuition, Self Control, and Appropriate Worry. Anatomically women have the brains it takes to be extraordinary leaders.  Neuroscience has revealed more to us about the brain in the past twenty years than all of history before that.  It is important to note that through neuroplasticity our brains are changing constantly to our environment.  If women are continually told they cannot lead – they will not be leaders.  But knowing that we are equipped for the challenge of leadership, our brains will positively react to the encouragement of leading.  Nature vs., Nurture: Nature has given us what we need – now we need to nurture female leaders.

Gender differences in the workplace: women prefer collaboration while men distrust their coworkers and desire to work alone, (2013, August 22). Retrieved January 30, 2014, from
Lean in and why women’s’ brains are wired for leadership. (2013, March 29). Retrieved October 28, 2013 from
Men vs. women: why the work divide matters, (2013, January 10). Retrieved January 30, 2014, from
The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are better at map reading. (2103, December 3). Retrieved January 30, 2014 from
Understanding ourselves: gender differences in the brain. (2008). Retrieved October 28, 2013, from

Patricia Faust, MGS
Director Corporate Brain Health
Brain Health Center

Wellness Programs and Brain Health

Changing Our Perspective On Wellness Programs

I have been reading a great deal about company wellness programs since the beginning of the year.  There is so much back and forth printed about the success, or lack of it, and effectiveness of wellness programs in the workplace.  It is disturbing to read that the only way some companies can get employees to participate is with the threat of fines and penalties.

The world of healthcare and health insurance has changed so dramatically since we started our careers.  I worked in a hospital lab and received my health insurance for free.  It also covered my husband.  He too received health insurance through his employer.  So we had double coverage and paid very little for healthcare.  Now we pay a lot for coverage and pay more for care.  Companies are in the crosshairs because they assume the financial risk of our health. 

We were never told that we must take better care of ourselves.  That was our private life and our employer didn’t need to be in it.  If we got sick we simply went to the doctor and received whatever we needed to get better.  We were never counseled on lifestyle practices that might be the cause of our illnesses.  Now, the cost of care is so incredibly high that when we get sick it costs everyone dearly.  So companies believe that in demanding that employees partake in wellness programs, they are saving their bottom line.

How does all of this pertain to our brains?  Inactivity is the leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol not only put you at risk for heart disease and diabetes but also increases your risk of dementia.  As much as we don’t want to be told to stop smoking, eat right and exercise, these very actions will save our lives and keep our brains functioning at a quality level. 

Wellness programs may indeed benefit the company, but by changing our perspective they can actually save our lives and save our brains for the future.

Pat Faust, Gerontologist
Director Corporate Brain Health
Brain Health Center

Brain Health for the Older Employee

The Dilemma of Older Workers and Cognitive Decline

There has been some discussion lately about older workers who might have dementia.  This scenario is not unusual.  The boomers are staying in the workplace longer these days.  This poses a dilemma for employers.  Normal aging changes in the brain can have an effect on older worker’s productivity.  Distraction, focus issues, and speed of processing can slow an older worker down.  Outside caregiving duties for frail, older parents and relatives can cause stress and lack of focus on the job.  These problems can undercut productivity.  And, then there are aging employees who might have Mild Cognitive Impairment.  Although functional individuals with MCI struggle to maintain the appearance of being cognitively intact, they are high risk to make costly mistakes on the job.  They can be masters at disguising their cognitive problems.  This makes it difficult to pinpoint what may be the problem with their work performance.
Then there is the ultimate problem of Alzheimer’s disease in the workplace.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Facts and Figures 2014 there are 5.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease.  An estimated 5 million people with Alzheimer’s disease are 65 and over.  The other 200,000 people are under age 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Unfortunately, about half of the people who meet diagnostic criteria for Alzheimer’s disease, have been diagnosed by a doctor.  The reality is half of the estimated 5.2 million Americans may not know they have it.
There is the group of individuals who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and deny problems.  They won’t go to a doctor because they fear what they might hear.  The stress of keeping this fa├žade intact can escalate their cognitive problems.  Chronic stress has an impact on the hippocampus (center for learning and memory), amygdala (an emotional center), and the prefrontal cortex (executive function).
How does that impact the workplace?  How does a company address this situation?  These are real concerns and policies for addressing cognitive issues must be in place.  Referrals to professionals for assessment and diagnosis must be available.  It is not the company’s place to make a diagnostic decision about a person’s cognitive ability based solely on observation.  Additional steps must be in place to address assessment outcomes.

Incorporating brain health programs within the context of wellness programming can benefit all employees regardless of age.  Our brains are remarkably resilient if given the appropriate resources.  Aging processes (e.g. speed of processing) can be recovered.  New neuronal cell growth can occur when the brain is given the right stimulation.  Through physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, stress management, and spirituality our brains can develop cognitive resilience.  We can function at a higher cognitive level and ultimately delay the onset of dementia.  This brain health culture changes the dynamic of the workplace.  It is definitely a win for all.

Pat Faust, Gerontologist
Director Corporate Wellness
Brain Health Center