Brain science for leaders during Great Resignation



Restaurants are short-staffed, hospital waiting rooms are overflowing due to a lack of nurses to care for patients, call center staff are quitting after relentless abuse from customers—these are calls for help from a depleted workforce. And they’re coming through loud and clear.

We’re hearing voices from the field about the dire straits in certain industries, especially from medical professionals. “Last year we were fully staffed. Now we’re staffed below 40% but with 120% of the work,” one university athletic trainer told us. “We have to physically be here as the medic on site. We don’t have the luxury of remote work. It’s seven days a week with some long days, and we can’t give them the level of care that prevents future injuries. We’re all physically and emotionally spent.”

In certain industries like healthcare, this situation is widespread—and the people who aren’t quitting may only be staying because they know they’d be going from the firepan to the fire. When medical professionals stay put, it’s often because they don’t want to leave a career where they have multiple degrees and decades of experience, especially if they’re good at it and still feel they have something to contribute.

Simply put, many employees and managers are holding on for dear life and losing grip, fast. But leaders still have some options. Below, we gathered three things people in this current state can do to survive, according to science.

Fire your Chief Hope Officer

When you’re in survival mode, it’s common to hear that you can’t lose hope. And while it’s important to know that things may eventually turn out alright, that’s not going to happen if you don’t acknowledge the realities of the situation and get to work on the difficult tasks at hand. This idea of maintaining optimism while also tending to the harsh reality is known as the Stockdale Paradox. This paradox creates unconscious conflict in the brain at a time of anxiety, which then impairs our cognitive abilities, making it harder for us to be flexible. To reorient your brain, focus on small, near-term goals and realize that by being optimistic and attentive, you can get through the difficult tasks.

Dig deep for compassion

Conventional wisdom says that when you’re exhausted, you should conserve your energy and focus inward. But research actually shows this is the best time to take the extra effort because one type of empathy actually creates more energy.

Empathy, as Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an associate professor at the University of Southern California explained in a recent episode of Your Brain at Work LIVE, is an umbrella term that includes emotional resonance, sympathy, and compassion. And compassion is where the magic happens.

Compassion is understanding someone’s needs and then making an effort to share in their experience. Research shows that being compassionate sends social reward signals that feel similar to love to the giver’s brain. In the workplace, such compassion could be taking the time to understand that someone was up all night caring for a sick infant but came to work for a high visibility sales call, and responding by suggesting they log off early.

Surprise people with unexpected rewards

One of the best ways to find the silver lining in a survival situation is to be pleasantly surprised. Our brains trigger a reward response when we get a choice, and that reward is even stronger when it’s a choice we didn’t expect. Leaders can create this effect by finding opportunities to give employees unexpected autonomy, such as allowing them to choose from a list of ways to take care of themselves or others (i.e. “Here are three gift cards—keep one for yourself, give one to a coworker, and donate one to a charity.”). Another example of unexpected autonomy might be allowing someone to take an extra day of PTO, or giving a cash bonus.

Research has shown us that feeling underappreciated is one of the key reasons people are quitting at this time, which makes it especially important to provide social rewards—signals that trigger our brains to release positive chemicals—in abundance. When you’re taking things day by day, it’s crucial to acknowledge people’s value in any way you can. If you’re short-staffed, for example, can you take some of the unspent wages and give your employees a bonus? If people are so overworked they’re having difficulty finding time to eat, could you help with meals by giving subscriptions for meal prep services, healthy takeout, or personal shoppers? Anything you can do to show—not tell—your employees that you value their extra efforts will go a long way.





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