OHS Canada Magazine

The neuroscience of safety leadership

Real leadership is being willing to look honestly at ourselves, how we lead, and then make the adjustments necessary.


The ever-evolving field of neuroscience is providing clearer insight into how leaders everywhere can foster safe, healthy, and highly productive workplaces with a basic understanding of how their employees’ brains and nervous systems work.

Prior to COVID-19, the average person spent a majority of their time in stress response. Think Internet connections, home schooling, second mortgages, spousal arguments, and the like.

In the last 20 months, most employees have experienced even higher levels of worry, anxiety, and fear. One critical reason is that the “pandemic” environment has thrust employees into the “unknown.”

The unknown is the scariest place for the amygdala — the part of the brain that acts as a conductor, assigning emotions such as anger and fear to threats in the external environment, and triggering the flight-or-fight response.

It signals the autonomic nervous system to release hormones like adrenaline that drives the stress response, such as increased heart and breathing rates, sweating, and dilation of pupils.

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High levels of employee stress have been shown to:

  • increase workplace injuries
  • heighten the risk of heart attacks
  • increase mental health problems
  • create more conflicts
  • increase the number of employee sick days and absenteeism due to a suppressed immune system. (Not-so-fun fact: organ transplant recipients are often given stress hormones to suppress the body’s immune system and reduce the odds of the body rejecting the donor organ.)
  • increase the frequency and severity of MSI injuries. (Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol continually coursing through the body catabolize and harden blood vessels and muscle tissue, making them more likely to strain and tear.)

Work environment a leader’s responsibility

As our understanding of neuroscience evolves, how we lead and manage must also evolve.

When we better understand the chemistry of human emotions and their effects on the brain and nervous system, the direct relationship between the workplace environment and employee performance becomes clear.

From a neuroscience point of view, when employees are happy and optimistic, their brain and body produce chemicals of well-being, including dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin.

The effects of these “happy” chemicals include increased immune system response predicting greater presenteeism.

In addition, happy hormones are necessary to keep human beings connected to the frontal lobe of their brain.

The frontal lobe is the marvel of our evolutionary development and where our higher reasoning resides. It’s the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like emotion regulation, impulse control, creative problem solving, decision making, and seeing the big picture.

It’s reasonable to say then, if one has chosen the role of leadership, then by default they have chosen the responsibility to create a physically and mentally healthy work environment.

It is no longer excusable (or smart for that matter) to tolerate autocratic managers, excruciating production demands, or massive information overload that so many workplaces have not only become accustomed to, but have been conditioned to wear as a badge of honour.

Here’s how to build a safe, healthy and productive work environment:

Make people feel safe: Since the brain’s No. 1 priority is survival, support your managers so that they can conduct themselves in a manner to ensure that employees do not feel threatened. This likely requires training and education.

Embrace the neuroscience that “more is better” is a paradigm that no longer works: Manage production schedules to ensure that employees experience a healthy level of stress without overdoing it. When employees are balanced in their work/rest cycle, incidents, mistakes, and rework is reduced and creativity, collaboration, and productivity increase.

Make more efforts to offer praise and encouragement: The rule of thumb is that employees need three positive experiences for every negative one to maintain a state of happiness and well-being.

As leaders, we must to apply these same principles to our own self-management, self-care, positive self-talk, and managing our own levels of stress. If we don’t cultivate the best in ourselves, we cannot cultivate it in others.

Real leadership is being willing to look honestly at ourselves, how we lead, and then make the adjustments necessary. When leaders do their own inner work, they can then bring out the best in others and foster safe, healthy, and productive work environments.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, B. Sc. Ag., is the president and CEO of 1Life Workplace Safety Solutions and is a certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant in Winnipeg.

This Neurosafety commentary was published in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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