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Excessive stress strains the brain

Published on 4.10.2021
Tampere Universities
Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto
Hectic and demanding working life is putting increasingly more pressure on the brain. Constant change, which leaves no room for creating routines, is particularly stressful. It helps if you feel valued and that you are doing meaningful work.

When you run too fast, your muscles secrete lactic acid. The pain tells you to slow down, calm down and rest.

Our brain, however, is less clear about extreme strain. We may push ourselves to the limit before total exhaustion stops us.

“It is important to understand what happens to the brain when it is not respected and given a chance to rest,” says Kaisa Hartikainen, associate professor and leader of the Behavioral Neurology Research Group at Tampere University Hospital.

Efficiency, well-being, and sleep are the first things to deteriorate. At worst, you are constantly overstimulated: you have many irons in the fire, but nothing gets completed. If the overload persists for a long time, you run the risk of reduced work ability, depression, or exhaustion.

Employers have a legal duty to ensure occupational health and safety. Employees’ brain health should be protected just like other health hazards – like noise, dust, or heavy lifting – are avoided at workplaces.

There is much a person can do for their own brain health: taking breaks, getting enough rest and exercise, and eating healthily. Ultimately, however, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that there is not too much work.

“Both employers’ support and employees’ efforts are needed. You should not feel like you are running on the edge of an abyss all the time,” Hartikainen emphasises.

Many get stressed and exhausted

The Sustainable Brain Health project, coordinated by Tampere University of Applied Sciences, is developing ways to promote brain health and well-being at work.

The target groups are primary and secondary school teachers in Tampere, IT professionals in the Oulu region, and nurses working in social and health services.

“These occupational groups are under a lot of work-related stress. The aim is to find concrete measures to reduce the strain on their brain,” says Mirva Kolonen, project manager and lecturer at Tampere University of Applied Sciences.

Many people wonder and fear what will happen to them, how they will manage and survive. If this is the case, there are no resources left for actual work.

The target groups have already been interviewed and their well-being has been measured to assess stress and recovery from work. According to Kolonen, surprisingly many of those surveyed have reported fatigue and exhaustion.

“Heart rate variability measurements also show that people do not sufficiently recover from work,” Kolonen points out.

The three-year project is being carried out by the Tampere University Foundation, Oulu University of Applied Sciences, and Pirkanmaa Hospital District. It is funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health with money from the European Social Fund.

A spider steals the spotlight

The project will also produce brand new research on how work stress affects the physiology, information processing and emotional functions of the brain. The Behavioral Neurology Research Unit at Tampere University Hospital is responsible for this part of the project.

The research subjects perform an online test that puts a strain on the brain’s information processing, reaction capacity, and attention. They wear an electrode cap which measures the electrical activity of the brain.

At the same time is studied the way a visual threat – which is an image of a spider – affects their ability to cope with the tasks.

“It is a healthy brain function to pay momentary attention to a potential threat. However, in depression, for example, the brain focuses more attention than usual on negative emotional stimuli and the brain is disturbed for a longer period,” Hartikainen says.

The preliminary results show that the brain’s executive functions work less well in exhausted workers than in others. The executive functions are like the conductor of an orchestra that are controlling other brain functions. When they are overloaded, work ability is affected: initiative is impaired, emotion regulation is disrupted and working memory is blocked.

For its part, the spider test shows that people cannot choose whether to pay attention to a potential threat.

“We are supposed to react to negative things. That is why it is vital that we promote a positive emotional climate at the workplace,” Hartikainen says.

Conflicts cause an emotional burden

At work, we do not have to be afraid of spiders, but many other factors can trigger unpleasant emotions.

Unpredictable changes, contradictions and conflicts cause emotional stress, which steals resources from the brain’s executive functions.

“Many people wonder and fear what will happen to me, how I will cope and how I will survive. When this happens, there are no resources left for actual work,” says Kolonen.

Overloading the brain’s executive functions impairs initiative, emotion regulation, and working memory.Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Outwardly, we may appear to be coping well, but work efficiency can still suffer.

“Even if you can control your emotions and cope with emotional overload, the reality is that it comes at a cost to other brain functions. That is why unnecessary emotional overload should be avoided,” Hartikainen mentions.

When we are angry, we may react quickly and try to resolve the conflict immediately. However, in terms of the brain’s executive functions, we should sleep over night.

“When we have rested and the emotional turmoil has subsided, we are less likely to act impulsively. As our executive functions improve, we are better able to deal with challenging issues,” Kolonen points out.

Hurry has increased

Current working life is putting a heavy strain especially on the brain’s executive functions.

In the past, you may have been able to think about other things while working. In knowledge work, concentration and problem-solving are constantly required, which puts more strain on the brain.

“Many jobs require you to “multitask”, i.e., to divide and redirect your attention repeatedly and to keep many things in mind simultaneously. This puts a strain on the working memory and makes decision-making harder,” says Hartikainen.

Work has also become more hectic. Although computers are taking care of many routine tasks for us, there is no slack in our work, and we are expected to deliver results faster than ever.

People can cope quite well if they feel valued and important and have a feeling of belonging to a community.

The importance of self-direction has been emphasised particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teleworking means that employees must decide for themselves the order in which they perform their duties, how they schedule their work and which tasks they prioritise. It is all about being organised, which is demanding for the brain.

Change and a lack of routine are particularly stressful for the brain. Hartikainen and Kolonen are concerned about current trends in working life where change is constant and there is no room for creating routines.

“It would be important that the brain did not need to control all things but that some things were always repeated in the same way. That would leave capacity for more challenging tasks,” Hartikainen says.

It is important to note successes

Work can also be straining if employees are unappreciated. It is important for the employer to recognise successes.

“People can do much if they feel valued, important and part of a community. If, on the other hand, they feel they can be replaced by anyone else, it strains their resources,” Hartikainen says.

A shared vision also helps people to cope at work. When people feel that they are doing meaningful work, it can be a support in times of stress.

How to protect your brain

  • Working memory is strained if you try to keep several things in mind at once. Write down what you must remember in a calendar or checklist.
  • If possible, set aside time for work that requires concentration when you do not check your email or phone. Constant interruptions strain your brain and slow you down.
  • Take breaks. Sometimes short micro-breaks are enough, but work that requires much thinking can require longer breaks in which you can really disconnect from work.
  • Make sure you get enough exercise, rest and sleep and have a healthy diet. Avoid alcohol especially in evenings before going to bed.
  • If you have too many tasks, talk it over with your supervisor. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that no one is overburdened at work.
  • Think about what kind of working pattern would suit you. Not everyone can cope in an open plan office but working alone does not suit everyone either.

(Source: Mirva Kolonen and Kaisa Hartikainen, Sustainable Brain Health Project)

Author: Virpi Ekholm