3 Brain-friendly Ways to Become Hyper Productive and Happy at Work

When you work in the way your brain works best, this is a brain-friendly workplace – where you feel happy, aligned, and focused.

Nearly 80 percent of American employees experience work-related stress, with nearly three in five reporting impacts such as lack of energy and motivation. And more than one-third of workers report cognitive weariness and emotional exhaustion, with 44 percent saying they have physical fatigue, according to APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey.

If things seem broken to you – you’re right. Workers are burned out, which has real, lasting impacts on humans and businesses. But rather than expecting workers to fit the needs of the workplace, the workplace needs to change to recognize people’s neurosignature diversity. When you work in the way your brain works best, this is a brain-friendly workplace – where you feel happy, aligned, and focused.

Every company can encourage this type of environment if they make the right changes. Here’s how to do it.

First, acknowledge neuro signature diversity

Each of us has four brain systems: the dopamine system, the serotonin system, the estrogen system, and the testosterone system. It’s your brain’s activity within the four systems that determines your unique neurosignature, which in turn guides how you feel about work, how you interact with your colleagues, and how you respond to stress. It shapes your personality and works behind the scenes to determine what brings you joy or frustration, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, and the environments in which you thrive or struggle.

You likely have more activity in some of the brain systems than others, which influences your experiences and perspectives related to your work. For example, dopamine signatures are prevalent in entrepreneurs – they tend to be fearless risk-takers. Testosterone neuro signatures enjoy diving into data; they’re analytical. Serotonin neuro signatures find joy in the details and precision, as is needed in legal or accounting roles. And estrogen neuro signatures are nurturers and empathetic communicators.

Despite our brains’ diversity, many companies mostly favor and reward testosterone and dopamine neuro signatures. These employees work well in high-pressure environments and can sustain long hours. Yet – this leaves the majority of the population behind. This discrepancy is what I refer to as the neuro gap. If more companies can recognize neurosignature diversity and make thoughtful changes to their culture and policies, then work would be a place where people can thrive. Moreover, companies will benefit from the complementary skills and talents that estrogen and serotonin neuro signatures bring to the workplace.

Shift from a hustle culture to an outcome culture

Second, companies must make an intentional culture shift. Most companies place an emphasis on “hustle culture,” where putting in long hours is mistaken for productivity. This may impress your boss, but it’s bound to shatter your productivity.

One survey shows that in an eight-hour workday, people are really only working for about three hours. How did they spend their time otherwise? Browsing the web, chatting with co-workers, and even applying for other jobs. Our brains are wired to be intensely focused and productive for around short sprints. Then, we need to take a break to recharge our brains and unwind. I like to call this process “cycling.”

Unlike hustle culture, outcome culture focuses on what you accomplish, not on how long it takes to do it. It rewards people who work efficiently and lets companies cut back on daily hours or the number of workdays in the week. The extra free time allows employees to pursue their passions and has a “happiness impact” on productivity.

Businesses feel the rewards, too. In San Diego, Stephan Aarstol, CEO of Tower Paddle Boards, made the radical decision to cut his employees’ workdays down to five hours while nearly doubling their hourly pay. Tower saw a three-year growth spurt of 1,850 percent! His company’s financial success overjoyed Aarstol, but his strategy also had a powerful employee-focused motivation that struck at the heart of outcome culture. As he told Fast Company in 2016, “I wanted to give them their lives back.”

Enable your employees to work their best

The third step is acknowledging that even if your company has transformed from a hustle culture to an outcome culture, you are still faced with the challenge of helping your team reach peak performance. You can do so by understanding the flow state of work – where you lose track of time, things feel easy, and you’re in an almost meditative state of mind. While this coveted state of mind is often thought of as random – like you just stumbled upon it! – you can trigger this hyper-productive mode of work.

Flow is the product of three neurochemicals working in concert: dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. Luckily, you don’t need to remember any of these chemical names. You need to recall three simple words: fun, fear, and focus.

  • Consider how you can make work more enjoyable. Ensure your employees are doing jobs they love and look forward to. Find time to laugh and joke with one another, even if you’re remote. Enjoyment and novelty shouldn’t be foreign concepts in the workplace. When you have fun, your brain releases dopamine and fully engages in the expectation of forthcoming rewards.
  • Fear. You’re less likely to pay attention if you feel there’s little at stake. That’s where fear comes in. When you feel just slightly over-challenged, when something takes you slightly beyond your comfort zone, your brain releases the positive fear chemical, norepinephrine. This is our optimal stress point. But here’s the thing: you must recognize that each of your employees has a unique optimal stress point. Understand that some of your team members will thrive on deadlines and stress, and others will need solitude and quiet – there is no right or wrong; it’s simply neurosignature diversity.
  • It comes when your brain releases acetylcholine, which functions like a spotlight, enabling you to zero in on what’s important while leaving distractions in the dark. Although fun triggers dopamine and fear releases norepinephrine, the great thing about acetylcholine is that it naturally arises as a byproduct of the other two. In other words, the focus will follow if you have fun and fear. You can help support focus on your team by cutting unnecessary meetings, allowing for cameras to be optional on video calls, and respecting boundaries when it comes to text messaging and anything that may be disruptive.

When you have all three? You have flow.

A brain-friendly workplace is within reach

Entrenched habits and deeply-rooted cultures cannot be changed overnight. But these are tangible, reachable steps you can take to change your culture and respect that – just like any other kind of diversity – we have unique neuro signatures and ways of working. From rethinking our approach to meetings to integrating fun, you can make important cultural shifts and allow your employees to thrive.

Friederike Fabritius
Friederike Fabritius, MS, is a neuroscientist and trailblazer in the field of neuro-leadership. Her brain-based leadership programs have transformed how Fortune 500 executives think, innovate, and navigate change. Fabritius is a thought leader and keynote speaker, known for engaging global audiences at organizations like Google, Ernst & Young (EY), Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Adecco, Accenture, Deloitte, BMW, Bayer, SAP, Harvard Business Review, trivago, and Audi. An alumna of McKinsey & Company and the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, she serves on the prestigious German Academy of Science and Engineering. Fabritius is author of the award-winning book, The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, Happier. Ever since she can remember, Friederike has been curious about the way the brain works and why people behave the way they do. That’s why she chose to become a neuroscientist. But when she left the laboratory to take a job in management consulting, she was surprised to see the way that people in the business world were working. It wasn’t in line with what she knew from neuroscience about how the brain works best. Not even close. That experience led her on a journey through neuroscience literature in pursuit of answers to some pressing questions. How can we work better? What are the principles that lead to better learning, improved collaboration, and the highest performance? And how can we make them applicable for busy executives? Ever since then, Friederike has worked with C-level executives from more than 164 countries in creating brain-friendly ways of working. It also led her to write her award-winning book The Leading Brain, which was published by Random House and has been translated internationally. Friederike is fluent in six languages and lives with her husband and five children in Heidelberg, Germany. Her new book, The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Why Talented People Quit and How to Get Them to Stay (Rowman & Littlefield; October 11, 2022), is a smart, science-based approach to retaining your talent and making the world of work a better place.