While the Autumnal Equinox is still weeks away, for most of us, Labor Day signifies the end of summer — an end to our summer fun and vacations, and a return to work or to school.

You had an exciting summer and it was full of surprises and rewards, and now you’re back in the salt mines, so to speak.

Work Can Be Good (or Bad) For Your Brain

Generally, work is good for the brain, especially when it is challenging, meaningful and rewarding. However, work can also be bad for the brain — when it becomes a grinding routine, leading to mental routinization and stultification. If the brain is not engaged in improvement, it loses ground to the vicissitudes of life.

When you come back to work after some time off, you generally come back reinvigorated, at your full intensity and with the energy to tackle the challenges of work.

Of course, it matters how you feel about what you come back to. If you find a lot of what is asked of you at work is the same old routine — or worse, is a deadening re-run every day — that hum-drum existence results in stagnation and decline.

Your Work Should Matter To You

The brain only changes for the better when what you are doing matters to you. Things have to matter to your brain to drive improvement in your cognitive performance. The good news is that virtually anyone can be better at their job by engaging the brain in a way that drives it in a positive direction.

The brain is engaged in continuous self-monitoring and self-evaluation. The brain understands when you are making progress and doing what matters. At those moments, you feel rewarded and the brain releases dopamine. That brain chemical improves your mood, but it also makes the brain more plastic — more capable of change — and that helps you to improve your brain performance and health.

Dr. Merzenich discusses Your Brain at Work in the video above

Challenging Work is Healthy

Sustaining brain health is critical. There are many studies that show that people who have a relatively vigorous operational use of their brain at work are advantaged in protecting themselves against the advance of dementia, as compared to people who fall into a hum-drum job that does not challenge or reward them. Think of all the hours every week those poor souls are wasting in work activities that allow the brain to go south — to basically go neurologically offline — and, that is not good for you!

You have to stay engaged. You have to continuously challenge yourself. Not every job is inherently challenging and exciting, but you can look for the surprises and opportunities in it.

You can take your work seriously, and you can work to be better at it next week than you are this week. That’s not just good for your career, and your enterprise — that’s good for your brain health.

Brain Training and Workplace Performance Studies

Recently, some independent researchers have been looking at whether the BrainHQ exercises that I was involved in creating — and which have been shown to improve overall cognitive performance and health in many studies — can also improve workplace performance. This year, they published a pair of very interesting studies.

In the first study, electric powerline workers were trained using BrainHQ to improve their attention. If they make an error in attaching lines, that error can be very expensive or even fatal.  Of course, all of us are human, so mistakes do happen.

After a small amount of training (just 12 hours), the researchers compared the abilities of the trained powerline workers to a control group on a standard assessment of error rate. They found the trained workers performed significantly better on the assessment. The researchers then followed those workers over the next 4 years and found that the untrained workers were nine times more likely to make a reportable error than the trained workers. This type of training gives new meaning to what can be a “life saver” at work.

But, it’s not just about safety.  In another study, independent researchers recruited tech workers at Fujitsu Labs America – a high performance think tank where pretty much everyone is well above average in cognitive abilities.

The researchers found BrainHQ training drove significant gains in efficiency, based on standard neuropsychological assessments and on brain imaging. They also showed that the more the workers trained, the more it helped. The overall average improvement was about eight percent. Those who trained more than the median had average gains of twelve percent, and those who trained less than the median still had gains from training, albeit smaller, at five percent. In addition, study participants self-reported qualitative gains in workplace performance from the training.

So, brain training has been shown to generalize to improve work performance in two very different work environments.

Even Top Performers Can Be Better

Of course, that is likely not too surprising.  We’ve heard from a lot of top performers that brain training makes them even better. 

Probably the most well-known worker who has attested to the role of brain training in improving workplace performance is New England Quarterback Tom Brady. He’s a great example of someone who focuses on continuous improvement. 

While logic suggest we should see workplace gains from brain training, it’s nice to have some rigorous independent studies to back up that presumption.

It leads one to wonder why our investment in better physical health in the workplace (for example, workplace health programs, safety programs, standing desks, no smoking policies) has not yet translated into investment in better brain health at work. This could be the beginning of a new healthful trend that also boosts productivity.

Feel Good About Your Work

As you focus on how you can improve your brain health at work, about the most important thing you can do is feel rewarded by what you do. Chances are that what you do to make a living has value to a lot of other people. That should help you feel that what you do matters, and it should make you want to keep improving. Find ways to reward yourself for a job well done!

Let’s celebrate your labor this Labor Day – and the contribution it makes to your brain health.