Avoid burn-out and fear of uncertainty by getting back to biology

“Time” magazine warned that A.I. “marks the end of humanity” but a greater risk is trying to out-run our own biology and cognition.


Seven in ten knowledge workers experienced ‘burnout’ (emotional exhaustion) or ‘imposter syndrome’ (alienation) last year (Source: Assana). This is bad news - especially when we consider that the future of work is due to become more complex and interdependent. However, we can harness our biology with two key levers to ensure workplaces evolve as ‘human-centric’.

Is working life hurting us?

In 2023, the ‘European Agency for Safety and Health at Work’ reported that 46% of EU workers suffer “severe time pressure and work overload”. In Ireland, a curious correlation is that we score both highest for Working From Home and reported loneliness. Though commuting less, we are struggling to rest/sleep and feel more anxiety. In fact, a bleak 70% of C-suite leaders say burnout has affected their ability to make decisions. Tantalisingly however, a UCD study suggests we are most productive when WFH when we score high in both conscientiousness and cognitive ability i.e., a capacity to ‘switch thinking gears.

Are we designed to make good decisions?

It seems not the smartest but the best to pivot who survive. However, this is far from straightforward. “Switching gears” requires that we move from an autopilot thinking mode (called ‘System 1’) to reason more deliberatively (‘System 2’). As this takes considerable metabolic energy, our brains mainly work on a ‘good enough’ basis to keep us safe. In addition, our threat-response system keeps us on alert yet unfortunately  not distinguishing very well between physiological and psychological triggers. Hence, a manager asking to speak to us after a tense meeting elicits either fight/flight as much as an incoming missile.

Our best chance of thinking straight

Neuroscience shows just how gradually and incrementally our brains developed. In fact, this new field turns a lot of what we thought we knew about thinking itself on its head. We evolved to reason mainly as a social function rather than to get to the truth. Yet these interpersonal dynamics are tricky and especially with less time these days to build trust or spent, in-person. Considering that social groups e.g., teams are our main engine for adaptivity, is it time to change our reward structures to suit collective reasoning better?

Building adaptive decision-making teams

The brain loves to anticipate both events and the intentions of others. We prefer certainty that there is  trouble ahead than not know, either way. In fact, more than data or knowledge, what drives the accuity of our thinking and accuracy of our forecasting are our combined thinking habits. By adopting Carol Dweck’s’ ‘Growth Mindset’., however, we can both predict better and reduce our anxiety. For example, a Bayesian approach of updating our predictions by adjusting probability scores by single percentage points, as new data emerges, works well. Groups will out-perform individual forecasters with an “actively open-minded” inindset. We can therefore identify such teams by a willingness to invite in opposing theories/beliefs in order to test their own (Tetlock).

Using culture as a lever for better decisions

If we want to prevent both burn-out and ‘imposter syndrome’, we need to normalise a certain ‘comfort with discomfort’. Culture, therefore, is one of our best tools as it includes the most important heuristic of all – our group identity. A recent study by UCC (published in ‘Rolling Stone;’ magazine) showed that, more so than any data set, it is WHO we are i.e., which group we identify with most AT THE TIME that determines our decisions most. Hence, understanding team norms and being able to challenge in-group bias is vital and to avoid either under- or over-estimating risk. Rewarding incremental effort over quick results and an acceptance of dissent within our own ranks could be key for adapting technology successfully and even enterprise survival.

Keeping us safe – yet facing our vulnerability

A recent visitor to Dublin from Harvard University, Amy Edmondson has developed the concept of  “psychological safety” (from Rogers) to explain how teams thrive. Like Dweck’s, her concept is easy to claim we have yet much harder to achieve i.e. teams where members admit mistakes and ask for help. Humans have a strong tendency, amplified by technology, to protect ourselves and play the “blame-game” rather than tackle difficult conversations with “radical candour”. Neither giving or receiving direct and honest feedback is easy and as we wired for empathy, it can be even tougher for remote teams. 

Back to biology – before it’s too late 

We are primarily social and, crucially, humans are embodied creatures. The brain evolved to support the body and not vice-versa. If we adopt the right behaviours and rewards, we can flood the workplace with the biology (i.e., hormones and neuro-transmitters) that keep us connected and wise. For this, we need regular brain-breaks, to structure work around physical wellbeing e.g. circadian rhythms and ensure more shared experiences that create a sense of bigger purpose and belonging. Our “mirror neurons” will ensure resilience as we’re essentially ‘meaning-makers' who need WHAT we do, to matter. Whether we believe that ‘Employment 5.0’ is about what technology can do for us i.e. human-centric or what we can do with technology, we are right.

The Engineering Skillnet runs free webinars regularly on the neuro-cognitive science of engaging and retaining talent. We promote critical thinking and coaching cultures through our suite of programmes to help boost ‘soft’ skills that make the ‘hard’ skills count for engineering industries.