How technology compounds the problem of mental health in the workplace

April 3, 2019

If you think mental health in the workplace is just another fad, think again. We’re becoming a nation of tech junkies, and according to leading neuroscientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield, our brains are physically changing as a result.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution you can use, which will help employees to physically reverse the damage caused by addiction to technology, and the demand for instant gratification.

Plasticity separates humans from machines – so why don’t we know what it is?

The biggest difference between human brains and artificial brains, is that human brains physically grow and shrink, to adapt to the tasks we are asking it to do. This is something called ‘plasticity’, and when Baroness Greenfield explained it to me at UNLEASH London 2019, it was the first time I’d ever heard of it.

“It’s been a known phenomenon for a very long time” she told me over coffee, “but not many people are aware of it. The brain is understandable by everyone, but the sad fact is that it’s not taught in schools.”

Greenfield says that just like physical exercise increases muscle strength, the parts of our brain that we exercise the most, will also become our strongest. It’s why London taxi drivers have an enlarged hippocampus, for example. But what does this have to do with mental health in the workplace?

Addiction is a form of neural plasticity

Plasticity doesn’t just apply to positive things, such as skilful navigation. It also applies to negative, self-destructive behaviours. And experts such as Marina Wolf, professor of behavioural neuroscience, tend to agree that addiction is simply another form of neural plasticity.

According to Greenfield, a brain scan of a gambling addict will likely show growth in the areas that handle dopamine production and delivery. And actually, this is not exclusive to gamblers – it is true of addiction in general. Including addiction to technology.

And this is where this all circles back to mental health in the workplace – and how it’s not just a fad, but a problem that is literally, physically growing.

Technology is turning your workforce into a mob of reckless thrill seekers

We are in the middle of the 4th industrial revolution, and with it comes opportunity. But with it also comes danger – in the form of flashing lights and glowing screens.

From Candy Crush to World of Warcraft, as a species we have perfected the art of in-the-moment, hyper sensational pleasure. We have figured out the precise ingredients needed to stimulate our senses in the here and now, and to keep ourselves hooked to our own inventions.

“More people than ever are craving instant feedback and immediate gratification” says Baroness Greenfield. “There is research that tells us people would prefer to be electrocuted, than to feel nothing at all. We are actually addicted to fast, furious stimulation.”

Greenfield says that concepts such as gamification are causing a glassy-eyed nation of tech junkies, who are constantly seeking their next fix, their next achievement, their next thrill. She also says that if you scan the brain of a tech addict, it will look disturbingly similar to the brain of a gambling addict, a food addict or a drug addict.

Technology addiction is not harmless

You might be thinking that “technology addiction” is a relatively harmless phrase. After all, it’s not like the other addictions, right?

You’re not handing your salary to the casino bosses. You’re not eating your way to a heart attack. And you’re certainly not screwing your vital organs up by putting harmful chemicals into your body.

But actually, Greenfield tells me that just like any addiction, technology addiction is harmful. And not just because it can swallow months of your life, demanding you to complete pointless tasks in an attempt to harvest your data.

“It changes the way we behave” she says. “Addicts have short attention spans, and display more reckless behaviour with less awareness of risk.”

There is a difference between reckless behaviour, and calculated risk-taking. One is generally good for business, the other generally isn’t. And Greenfield says that a workforce of addicts is far more likely to lean towards reckless behaviours, with poor risk calculation, in an attempt to find that next dopamine hit.

Technology should be delivering an enriched version of the real world

So is the solution to a workforce full of addicts with short attention spans, to simply remove technology from the equation?

Probably not. And actually, technology does an awful lot for us. And besides, if you throw a smoker’s cigarettes away, it’s not going to take away their addiction.

Baroness Greenfield says that instead, we should be looking at how we design, build, promote, and use technology.

“Technology is helpful to a lot of people in a lot of ways” she says. “But instead of replacing our lives with a new virtual world, we should be using tech to deliver an enriched version of the real world.”

You can help repair tech-addicted brains by telling more stories

Throughout my entire conversation with Baroness Greenfield, I had one burning question on my lips: If we are physically destroying our brains with addiction, then how can we start to repair the damage? How can we encourage employees to reduce the need for instant gratification, and how can we use this knowledge to improve mental health in the workplace?

The answer, says Greenfield, is narrative. Telling more stories, and engaging in more activities with a clear beginning, middle and end.

“You can give people back their identity, by giving them a better sense of past, present and future” she explains. “The current world is dependent on the moment. The screen is popular because it is hypersensational, faster, brighter, noisier… more extreme. And the way you beat that, is by giving people back a life story, a frame of past present and future, and a sense of time passing.”

Story-based activities to encourage in the workplace

Here are a list of suggested activities for employees, which Baroness Greenfield says could help reduce the need for instant gratification, and improve mental health in the workplace.

  • Reading books
  • Playing sports
  • Cooking food

“These are all activities that require you to pace your time” she explains. “They also have a clear beginning, middle and end. Besides, you can’t get on the phone while you’re serving at tennis, can you?”

She also adds that in our personal lives, we should be giving more hugs, picking more flowers, and climbing more trees. Why? Because you’re making these decisions, you’re in control, and the smells, the colours and the sensations that these sorts of activities deliver, have a wonderful impact on wellbeing.

About Baroness Susan Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield is a leading neuroscientist, who holds 32 honorary degrees from UK and foreign universities.

Her life work focuses on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, and she has written many books which have helped people to understand the brain better, and even inspired many others to become neuroscientists themselves.

She is the Founder and CEO of Neuro-Bio Ltd.

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