Why Building Brain Capital is a winning workforce strategy in 2023 and beyond

By Harris Eyre & Ian MacRae

The world of work is in flux. That won’t be news to anyone, and it isn’t likely to change. As societal norms and technological advancements come, so do expectations of the workplace. Alongside this we’re offered a unique chance to rethink the way we approach work, focusing on optimizing brain health and tapping into our full cognitive potential. We want to say goodbye to “human capital” and welcome the concept of “brain capital.”

Why Building Brain Capital is a winning strategy

In our day-to-day work lives, we face a spectrum of challenges related to healthy brains and people’s well-being. We’re trying to keep up with new tech while staying sane with screen time, sifting through the barrage of fake news and disinformation, and grappling with the fallout from the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. All this, while being expected to stay in the workforce longer, learn new skills, adapt to changing cultural norms, have a side hustle, and document how well it’s all going online. It’s a lot to handle, more than anyone can reasonably be expected to stay on top of in their everyday lives.

That’s why we’re now living in a “brain economy,” where it’s not just about human capital, and people are far more than just the hours they work. We can understand people as the full range of behavioural, psychological and social attributes they bring to the workplace with brain capital. It’s all about putting a premium on brain health and the skills that help us thrive in today’s complex world. Brain health means more than just avoiding illness; it’s about living healthy and well-adapted lives, whether we’re dealing with neurological issues or not. Brain skills—like resilience, grit, and creativity—are what help us navigate, survive, and flourish in our modern lives and workplaces.

Brain capital puts the focus on the positive aspects of our cognitive abilities, physical health and psychological well-being rather than just looking at our output and productivity. Productivity is a consequence of healthy people and organizations with brain capital, but not the only metric.  By shifting the emphasis to brain health and the development of brain skills, we open the door to a more opportunities to improve work and the workplace for everyone involved.

From Human to Brain Capital

National and international economic indicators have generally taken a very limited approach to understanding people beyond simple measures of productivity. At the global level, human capital is typically measured by the World Bank through the formal qualifications, years of schooling, and wage rates of individuals. However, these metrics rarely account for the fundamental factors that improve a person’s productivity along with their overall well-being: the interconnected dimensions of physical and psychological health that coalesce to create the individual conditions for effective collaboration, prosocial group dynamics, great teams and organizations.

Recently, the World Economic Forum and Willis Towers Watson concluded that a company’s intangible assets, including human capital and culture, are estimated to comprise more than half of a company’s market value on average. Yet traditional measures of economic output, and productivity do not account for these fundamental factors. The reason it is so difficult to automate creative, innovative and collaborative work is the inherent complexity that healthy human brains are able to navigate, but machines or artificial intelligence computer programs cannot.

The concept of Brain Capital recognizes that brain health is influenced by a complex interplay of psychological, social, and physical factors, and seeks to optimize these factors to improve brain function and overall well-being. By taking a proactive approach to brain health, we can reduce the negative consequences of cognitive ill-health but also build on the benefits of healthier brains like increased creativity, innovation, and empathy. Brain Capital is a call to action for individuals, organizations, and societies to prioritize brain health and wellbeing, recognizing its vital role in achieving personal and collective success.

Benefits of focusing on brain health

Boosting brain health can bring significant benefits to employers, as employees with good brain health are likely to be more engaged, productive, and innovative. Brain-healthy employees are better equipped to manage stress and navigate complex challenges, which can help them stay focused and productive on the job. Additionally, employees with good brain health are better able to collaborate and communicate effectively with their colleagues, leading to stronger teamwork and better outcomes for the organization as a whole.

Investing in brain health can also help employers attract and retain top talent. Employees are increasingly looking for workplaces that prioritize health, wellbeing, autonomy and flexibility.

Organization that demonstrates a commitment to holistic brain health will be more attractive to new employees and far better at retaining top talent. That also means putting employees in the driver’s seat of their own development, with initiatives like open-ended development budgets. Giving employees support (terms of the financial resources as well as social and psychological support) to tailor their own learning and development pathways can lead to increased engagement, as employees are given greater autonomy and are able to align their areas of interest with emerging trends and technology.

By encouraging employees to develop independently in new areas, organizations can create a culture of learning and innovation that is far better equipped to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market.

The benefits of investing in brain health go beyond traditional notions of employee development. By taking a holistic approach to brain health, organizations can create a culture that prioritizes the wellbeing of its employees. Research demonstrates there are physical changes that we can make to workplaces to boost individual and collaborative work and we can improve the quality of remote work by taking time to develop remote working skills while reinforcing the value of in-person collaboration.

Reframing the risks

There are many risks associated with the modern workplace that can impact brain health and wellbeing. Building resilience can be thought of through the lens of boosting brain health. By prioritizing activities that support brain health, such as promoting work-life balance, getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, and practicing stress-management techniques, individuals can build the foundation for greater resilience.

Organizations can also play a role in promoting resilience by providing resources and support for employees to manage stress, such as access to mental health services, flexible work arrangements, and improved brain health literacy across the organization.

Ultimately, building resilience is not just about mitigating risk, but also about unlocking the full potential of the brain. By prioritizing brain health, individuals and organizations can create a more healthy and productive work environment that is better equipped to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Tips for promoting brain health:

Here are seven tips for promoting brain health, adapted from a recent paper in Nature:

Access to robust mental health care for the whole family: A supportive environment alleviating stress and enhancing overall employee well-being by addressing the interconnected emotional needs of both individuals and their loved ones.
Social and collaborative work: Learning from colleagues and sharing our knowledge with others stimulates the brain. New social connections and interesting conversations literally create new connections between brain cells.
Learn and engage your brain: Training and development, learning new skills in practical or applied environments are much better than “brain training” apps!
Practice stress management techniques: it’s not realistic to eliminate all sources of stress in life, so effective ways of managing or mitigating stress, and practicing healthy coping mechanisms is essential.
Sustainable, ongoing exercise: physical health is the life support system for our brains. Find a type of physical activity that is enjoyable for you. Memes and fads like ultra-high intensity training or cold water swimming aren’t right for everyone!
Restorative sleep: A good night’s sleep allows the body to repair and rejuvenate, consolidate memories, and regulate hormones and other bodily functions.
Nutrition: The brain requires a constant supply of nutrients to function optimally, and a balanced diet that includes essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats can help improve cognitive function, memory, and mood while reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

About the Authors

Dr Harris A. Eyre MD PhD is a fellow at the Center for Health and Bioscience at The Baker Institute, a senior fellow at Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and lead of the Brain Capital Alliance.

Ian MacRae is a workplace psychologist and author of six books about the workplace, personality, digital communication and technology including Dark Social: Understanding the darker side of work, personality and social media.

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