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Which (Happy) hormones are at work in the workplace?

Clive Hyland | 13th January 2021

As we move into another lockdown (sigh), many business leaders are coping with high levels of uncertainty and seismic changes to their processes and ability to manage and lead their people. Change is difficult for everyone and can cause a lot of unrest for both employers and employees alike. 

I keep hearing business leaders saying that emotions and hormones are running riot in their businesses. Whilst negative emotions and some hormones can harm productivity, is that the case for all emotions and hormones? No. With a basic understanding of neuroscience and hormones can you use them to your advantage? Let’s find out… 

Are hormones so terrible?

It seems to me that hormones get too much bad press. Usually associated with such things as teenage behaviour (bad!), pregnancy or the menopause. But do they deserve to be cast as the villain of the pantomime? I don’t think so. These particular villains are just misunderstood!

Here we look at how some of these hormones “show up” at work, and how a knowledge of neuroscience and hormones can benefit your business. 

What Are Hormones?

You may have come across the term ‘neurotransmitter’. For reasons of simplicity, we can think of neurotransmitters as being hormones of the brain. The function of both is to act as chemical messengers carrying encoded information. In the brain, neurotransmitters create a chemical bridge between neurons (nerve cells) allowing them to communicate and interact. 

Hormones are secreted into the blood system and cause behaviour changes in cell tissues, organs and muscles. They are usually made up of proteins and are produced by our endocrine glands which are located throughout our brain and body.

What Do They Do? 

Hormones are incredibly sophisticated chemical substances which help us to mobilise our bodies. Each of the many hormones circulating in our bodies performs a multitude of vital tasks: they may take a lead in certain situations, but they never operate alone; instead, they form part of the chemical cocktails which trigger our internal and behavioural responses. So, some respect is appropriate!

Which Hormones Impact the Workplace?

Let’s look at a shortlist of the hormones which are most likely to have an impact on the daily workplace. 

ADRENALINE: the essential fuel of our responses

Adrenaline Hormone

Adrenaline primes us for action just like putting our feet on the car accelerator. In itself, it does not have a predetermined positive or negative effect. It is neutral but essential for us to be energised. Adrenaline can fuel both anxiety and enthusiasm. 

No adrenaline = no available energy!

CORTISOL: the quintessential villain? 

Cortisol Hormone

Absolutely not. Although labelled the “stress hormone”, cortisol is an anti-inflammatory which is there to protect us, to ward off infection. The problem is not with cortisol itself but with the fact that is triggered too often in modern society. We respond internally to social threat (being disrespected etc) in the same way as a physical threat. The constant overstimulation of cortisol results in our response system being out of balance (too acetic), which in turn drains us of energy and can lead to illness and depression. 

Too much cortisol in the working environment = stress and cultural toxicity!

THE THREE AMIGOS: our heroes of cultural positivity and engagement!

Dopamine Hormone

DOPAMINE: the reward hormone

Dopamine enables us to feel a sense of inner reward when we achieve our goals. This is vital in giving us a sense of progress and feeling that we are on the right track. It is a critical element of our evolutionary drive to explore boundaries and stay focused on the activities that seem to succeed. Individuals with high levels of dopamine are often seen as “driven”.

Serotonin Hormone

SEROTONIN: the happiness hormone

This is the lead hormone in that lovely feeling we call happiness. It directly impacts our emotional mood. Too little of this can lead to depression, problems with anger control and obsessive-compulsive behaviour, as well as problems with metabolism, weight-loss and sleep. 

Oxytocin Hormone

OXYTOCIN: the engagement hormone

Oxytocin is triggered when we sense an opportunity to connect with others in a meaningful way and where we sense an opportunity to thrive. It directly opens the body up for engagement. Our pupils dilate and sparkle and we want to become a part of something bigger. Oxytocin is key to voluntary sexual engagement and part of the powerful bonding process that Mum (and Dad!) feel through pregnancy and especially when a baby is born. 

Are Happiness and Engagement the Same thing? 

When we step back and explore the three amigos, we can see that the differences are subtle and with substantial overlap. For instance, whilst natural allies, engagement and happiness are not the same things. You could be happy but have no interest in engaging (you want to stay where you are) or, conversely, be engaged (to outperform your colleague) but not be happy. Happiness is like a state of trust where we feel emotionally safe. Engagement implies action, a will to move forward which, in turn, implies meaning. Meaning gives us a sense of direction. 

We need staff to feel both happy and engaged

Our understanding of neuroscience and The Three Amigos tells us Happiness talks to our heart and helps us understand the Instinctive and Emotional nature of people creating our energy. Engagement speaks to our brains and focuses on our Reflective and Rational thinking. See our diagram below for more context:

Neuroscience brain quadrants

With the right balance of engagement and happiness in organisations, it creates a thriving culture. This means businesses can experience growth in several ways;

1. The organisation’s performance against its objectives.

2. The growth of their people.

3. The growth in their collective culture.

How to Nurture the Right Hormonal Balance in The Workplace

ADRENALINE: help your people be very conscious of the energetic impact they have on each other. We can all give each other energy or take it away. Leaders must be tuned into this energetic exchange and know-how to keep topping up cultural energy.

CORTISOL: whilst some level of stress is part of our natural response it’s critical to ensure it is not overplayed. Challenging people to perform is positive provided they are supported and have a fair chance of succeeding. Toxicity is a culture killer. Don’t allow it to contaminate your culture! 

SEROTONIN: work could and should be enjoyable. Human beings are realistic and know that “after the inspiration, comes the laundry”. We cannot expect to be happy all of the time, but we are designed to express our talent. The trick is finding the optimal organisation whereas many people as possible can align their talents with the needs of the business and get on with being who they are designed to be. What we at The Happiness Index call “Freedom to be Human”.

DOPAMINE: we need the inspiration of a vision to give us a sense of ongoing purpose and direction but then comes the challenge of executing the journey. We all need our everyday dopamine hits, to feel that we are achieving and being acknowledged for the effort we are making. Our bodies need to feel the sensation of progress and belonging to keep us on the right track. A culture which challenges but also supports and rewards us is vital. Interestingly, many organisations reward strategies that focus largely on financial rewards, when the body has no concept of money! Is it time to widen the reward debate?

Final thoughts 

For years organisations have focused on engagement, which speaks to our brains and gives us direction. It allows organisations to know how we think. The challenge is we’re human, and we don’t only think, we feel – which is where the staff happiness, wellbeing and hormonal understanding is key. Our millions of data points show that if businesses want to maximise employee experience and performance, their people need to be both Happy and Engaged.

It’s important to know that as humans we feel emotions before we create a thought. It happens in a fraction of a second. Our thoughts are always trying to catch up with our emotions. So, watch out for those hormones driving the behaviour and thoughts of your people. Each hormone has its own power and function, and the blended kick-ass cocktail will help create the perfect cocktail of happiness and engagement – leading to a thriving culture. After all, every pantomime needs a happy ending!

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