Thursday, September 10, 2009

How Painful is Your Workplace?

According to an interesting set of articles on pain in the Scientific American Mind September/October issue, we all experience pain uniquely. For some people, the volume has been turned up on their pain channel which causes them to experience pain sensations to a greater degree than others. Other people have normal pain reactions but are blessed with creating natural opiates that hide the sensation of pain.

While the article discusses the etiology of physical pain, perhaps we can liken the situation to the psychological pain that employees suffer from in the workplace. We've all seen that some employees have a much higher tolerance for difficult bosses, nonsense procedures to follow, rude colleagues and the like than others. Low tolerance employees seem to wilt or fight back or run away (or vent on Twitter) any time a work situation is less than optimal.

According to researchers at University College London and Harvard University, an increase in physical pain sensation may be the result of previous injury. This has something to due with abnormal excitability of neurons. The article describes it as follows:
Following an injury to a rat's paw, neuronal signals from nociceptors near the skin to neurons in the spinal cord became amplified, much like turning up the volume on an iPod. These altered neurons unleash exaggerated reactions to tissue-damaging input...
Which makes me wonder, are some employees hyper-sensitive to workplace irritations due to previous negative experiences? Did an ogre boss from the past, amplify the irritation production so that any future bosses' slip-ups are felt more painfully? Does this explain why there are so many of those whining employees who bitch and moan about the smallest of things? Do job-hoppers create their own self-fullfilling prophecy because of their over-sensitization to workplace problems?

One of the things I spend a lot of time talking about is identifying and reducing an organization's workplace irritations. We use exit interviews and other workplace surveys to make sure we understand what is causing employees' pain. Maybe we should also consider better screening in the recruiting process for employees who have low tolerance for irritations.

The Scientific American Mind articles also discuss the phenomenon of natural opiates that the body produces which minimize or eliminate the sensation of pain. Some people have a greater opiate producing brain/nervous system than others. Interestingly, one can increase their natural pain relievers. Any guess how? With rewards.

Studies show that even the anticipation of something pleasurable activates the brain's reward circuitry which in turn produces pain relief. J. Dum and Albert Herz of the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich studied this phenomenon with rats. They placed rats on a metal plate and fed half of them regular food and the other half chocolate covered biscuits. After a couple of weeks of this routine, they began to heat the metal plate. The rats who were anticipating the chocolate covered biscuits, endured the pain for twice as long. When they gave the chocolate rats a drug that prevents natural endorphins from relieving pain, they could not endure the metal plate any longer than the regular chow eaters. Clearly the anticipation of the reward was producing the pain relief.

While we always want to continue identifying and minimizing the "pain" employees experience in the workplace, we can also take a lesson from the rats. Perhaps we should also think about how we can increase productivity, decrease employee turnover and make for a happier workplace by hiring those with the highest threshhold for workplace irritations and creating rewards that stimulate our employees own natural pain killers.


Blogger Dishu said...

Its an amazing article,you have really done a great job.

10:36 PM, September 17, 2009  

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