Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity

If you’re interested in how the experience of work affects us, but you’re not into heavy science, get over the latter and become familiar with these two terms: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity. We’re going to be hearing a lot about both in the years to come.

Definitions

Neuroscience is defined by MedicineNet.com as:

The study of the brain and nervous system, including molecular neuroscience, cellular neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, psychophysics, computational modeling and diseases of the nervous system.

Neuroplasticity is defined as:

The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

In other words, we’re talking about the science of the brain, including how we can change it for the better and fix it after bad stuff happens.

Past blog posts

I try to avoid using too much jargon in writing articles for this blog, so the following pieces are not filled to the brim with references to neuroscience and neuroplasticity. Nonetheless, these concepts are at the heart of these posts:

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience

Do organizations suppress our empathy?

Understanding the bullied brain

Bully rats, tasers, and stress

Why concentrated power at work is bad

Huge implications for workplace bullying

As the titles of the posts listed above suggest, this has huge implications for understanding and responding to workplace bullying.

Neuroscience gives us tools for understanding what workplace bullying does to people. For example, last year Dr. Gary Namie wrote on the Workplace Bullying Institute blog about a promising experimental tool for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (link here):

Prolonged exposure to unremitting stress damages a person’s health. . . . In worst cases, trauma can result. . . . Now comes a potential new neuroscience tool to complement the diagnostic toolkit — MEG. MEG stands for magnetoencephalography. PTSD can be detected with 97% accuracy using this non-invasive, but still experimental, procedure.  MEG measures the magnetic signals produced by the activity of the brain.

Similarly, emerging understanding of neuroplasticity — in this context, applying insights to help counsel and heal bullying targets — gives us hope for breakthroughs toward helping those with PTSD, a condition so difficult to treat that often has left even the most optimistic trauma experts in a state of frustration.

Legal significance

Words not only can hurt, but also when delivered in a malicious, sustained, and targeted way, they can impair brain functioning. In short, psychological torture causes brain damage. Thus, as these discoveries and developments become documented through published scientific research, neuroscience will help targets of bullying, harassment, mobbing, and abuse prove legal claims against their tormenters. It also will help them access workers’ compensation and disability benefits.

Organizational behavior and business practices

Insights from neuroscience increasingly will inform the study of organizational behavior and business management practices. In an article for Strategy + Business about neuroscience and organizational culture (link here, free registration), Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick wrote:

When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question. New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.

A next big thing

So folks, this is a Next Big Thing. Stay tuned, because we’re going to be learning a lot of interesting stuff about ourselves, and this knowledge may lead us to ways of improving our lives at work and elsewhere.

Excellent Intro to Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance system that provides benefits for workers who sustain injuries arising out of and in the course of employment.  It also is one of the more mysterious programs around — people usually don’t know much about workers’ comp until they seek benefits.  Even most employment lawyers have only a hazy familiarity with workers’ comp, as these cases are handled by a small and specialized cohort of the legal profession.

In some instances, workers’ compensation benefits may be available for discrimination, harassment, and bullying situations that cause physical or psychological injury, but eligibility standards vary from state to state.

One of the nation’s foremost authorities on workers’ comp is John Burton.  His Workers’ Compensation Resources website (http://www.workerscompresources.com/) provides information and links on workers’ comp.  Even better, the May/June 2007 edition of Burton’s Workers’ Compensation Policy Review features his excellent overview of workers’ comp, and for now it is freely available online via pdf: http://www.workerscompresources.com/WCPR_Public/Free%20Issues/MJ07.pdf.

Good Court Decision But Horrific Tale

As 2008 comes to an end, I’d like to share with you one of the year’s most nightmarish judicial opinions, even though the court’s decision held for the underdog.

It’s the story of Jesse Maxwell, a worker for a Massachusetts paper company who in 2000 filed for workers’ compensation after injuring his neck, shoulder, and back while lifting a 100 pound object.  The workers’ compensation insurer denied his claim despite medical records showing a torn rotator cuff and verification from his employer’s human resources office that he was “totally or partially incapacitated.”  Maxwell, without income or other sources of support, became homeless, and his life spiraled into a personal and legal hell, triggered by the ongoing attempt by this insurer to discredit him and deny him workers’ comp benefits.

The primary defendant in this case?  AIG.  Yep, the same AIG that was among the first in the “conga line of bailout beneficiaries” (thank you, Maureen Dowd, for that line) when the current financial debacle began to reveal itself.

Maxwell’s lawsuit is grounded in allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.  The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a lower court’s denial of AIG’s motion to dismiss, meaning that his legal claims are still alive.

The full story of what happened to this man is difficult to fathom.  If you can devote 30 minutes or so to reading the court’s decision in Jesse Maxwell vs. AIG Domestic Claims, Inc., the blow-by-blow story will be worth your while (three separate links are provided to ensure access to the decision):

http://masscases.com/cases/app/72/72massappct685.html

http://www.socialaw.com/slip.htm?cid=18515&sid=119

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=ma&vol=appslip/18515&invol=1

This case also is a prime example of the protracted nature of litigation.  The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a good decision.  But consider that an injury in 2000 led to all of this.  What’s left of someone’s psyche after such an ordeal, even if they “win”?

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