Never mind stress & the brain...

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Having spent the past month attending several interesting and well put together conferences and meetings on the topic of Corporate Wellness in Dubai, I've been surprised to see how rarely the topic of stress and burnout is discussed.

It is almost like the thing that employees use the most at work, their brain, is completely forgotten about.

We talk health, happiness, reduced insurance costs, absence and sick-days and we talk about diseases from the neck and down. It is encouraging to see that many companies have started to introduce employee wellness programmes, but we rarely talk about stress, burnout and overall mental health and how that can impact our brains and ultimately both individual and company performance.

Whilst stress is a widely acknowledged issue in many other parts of the world, stress still seems to be a ''controversial topic'' for many across the region. As result, it is not widely talked about and sometimes its even frowned upon.

A key trigger for stress is norepinephrine, which travels through the amygdala through to what is called the HPA axis: hypothalamus – pituitary glands – adrenal glands, where cortisol is released. Interestingly under chronic stress, the HPA axis is consuming all our fuel to keep our system on alert. The thinking part of our brain is being robbed of energy.

When stressed, not only do we perform below optimal performance, we also consume more energy than we need to.

The negative impacts of stress on the brain are significant and how we react to stress depends on many factors - genetic, epigenetic and personal experiences. It impacts our amygdala and therefore our emotional responses negatively, it will shrink the frontal lobes which controls many of our cognitive abilities, and the same will happen to the hippocampus impacting also our memory negatively, amongst many other things.

During stress, we're therefore more likely to react emotionally, struggle to think clearly and we will not remember as many things as we should be able to.

The negative effects of high cortisol levels are often ignored, despite its well researched and documented short- and long-term effects. Not only do high cortisol levels impact our performance at work negatively, a significant amount of people also die of diseases linked to this globally each year.

So in conclusion, we know that stress most likely impacts more people across the Middle East than many would like to admit. This, in turn, will impact how they use the energy of their brains which will impact their individual performance and ultimately company performance.

What are the reasons for us not discussing this more? What do you think?