Can You Be Innovative in Your Nonprofit?

Stress Dampens Innovation

By Matthew Angello, Principal, Bright Tree Consulting Group

What many of us have suspected for a while, that the high stress workplaces of the new millennium negatively impact employees ability to innovate, has been proven with research. Well, sort of.

A fascinating article in the New York Times outlined research conducted by Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal, that explored the effect of chronic stress on the brain wiring of rats.

Upshot of the article is that severely stressed-out rats lose their ability to cunningly problem solve and resort to habitual behavior patterns when presented with problems. But of greater interest is that their brains hard-wiring, or neural circuitry changed to support the behavior. The parts of their brain that handled decision-making and goal-oriented behavior actually shriveled. Yikes.

Some of the ways in which the rats in the study were stressed out included being placed with dominant rats or given prolonged immersions in water. Upon reading this, I couldn’t help but rush to the parallel in our modern workplace of the Ghengis Khan boss or the never ending workload (equated to drowning). Hmm.

The good news is that given four weeks of vacation, the stressed-out rats actually re-formed the synaptic connections that had shriveled, and their cunning rat skills re-emerged. So maybe the French are onto something with their extended vacations.

It remains to be seen if this study is a harbinger of similar findings about the human brain. And as much as we may think of our boss or co-workers as part of the rodent family, it doesn’t make their brains so.

But still the implications are profound. Reducing the stress that you or your employees are under is a tonic for many ills. We used to think of them as mostly physical, but now we can add innovation-dampening to the list. At a time when innovation is one of the difference makers in a global economy, this is tantamount to pulling a Plaxico Burress and shooting yourself in the foot (er, leg).

It also has implications for what we really do on our vacations. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how doing stealth work with our laptops and Blackberrys on vacation might not be such a winning strategy after all. Maybe it’s better to come back to a full inbox, full of ideas, than to an empty one with an empty head.

View full New York Times article.

The Nonprofit Resource Network is building a repository of online resources needed routinely by employees working in the not-for-profit arena.

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