‘Busy brains’ a workplace safety risk

BRAIN AWARE: Eastland Group workplace safety/people and performance general manager Jarred Moroney and Dr Lucia Kelleher. Picture by Liam Clayton

“Catastrophic” accidents are still happening in the workplace, despite stringent health and safety rules, because our brains can't cope with the constant barrage of information from social media platforms, Gisborne workers have been told.

On a recent visit to Gisborne, behavioural scientist and business improvement specialist Dr Lucia Kelleher said workers in today’s technology-heavy society were working mostly on autopilot because of “Busy Brain Syndrome”.

“There is so much stuff in our environment that we have to deal with these days, and it has caused Busy Brain Syndrome (BBS) . . . we are all suffering from brain overload, which means there is just too much for the brain to process.

“The brain processes information and everything that’s out there, and the brain doesn’t know not to process something because it’s a junk e-mail. It’s total bombardment.

“It’s like a glass of water — when the glass is full you can’t put any more in. What’s happened is that more than 60 percent of what we do each day has gone into autopilot unconscious.”

The implications of that diagnosis could be “catastrophic”, Dr Kelleher said.

“That’s why we are seeing an increase in these accidents where you run a red light — because you didn’t see it. For example, I trained all the train drivers for Queensland Rail because they had 300 incidents of a driver running a red light — and that was because of this.”

This overload presented as constant distraction, which erodes people’s ability to stay focused and impacts on everything people do at work.

A further fallout is when people are in the BBS state they perceive other people’s intentions through a “negative lens”, escalating reactionary behaviours and poor workplace relations.

The way to overcome BBS was to re-engage with the body.

“If you have the right boots on but the feet are doing the wrong thing, it’s not going to make any difference.”

Dr Kelleher discovered Busy Brain Syndrome during her PhD research. BBS is simply brain overload due to the consistently increasing speed of demands in the modern world, and resulting higher expectations from businesses and the marketplace. BBS is caused by brain “processing” demands from our fast-paced world radically outstripping the brain’s limited and finite processing “bandwidth”, which means things don’t get processed.

Driving through red lights

That helps explains why people drive through red lights without seeing them, or forget what they went into a room for.

Dr Kelleher was in Gisborne as part of a training course with Eastland Group staff.

“What we are doing is teaching them how to be safe people. Safety doesn’t make people safe, we have to encourage people to be safe people.

“It’s about teaching people how to be aware of their environment. We actually find that Busy Brain Syndrome takes away people’s capacity to be aware. They are focused on their busy brain, and usually something that’s not related to work — they are thinking about other things so they are not actually aware of their environment.

“So we find that accidents and incidents that occur where there’s a human factor involved, there’s no explanation for them. People don’t see stuff, people don’t hear stuff because they are in busy brain.”

Even if people were aware of safety rules at work, if they were not aware, they would probably not implement them, she said.

Eastland Group general manager of people and performance Jarred Moroney organised Dr Kelleher’s visit.

“I attended a safety psychology conference in Sydney, and Dr Kelleher spoke about Busy Brain Syndrome. Some lightbulbs went off for me. With health and safety, companies focus on policies and procedures. But truly understanding why an incident happens, from a human factors point of view, is often the piece of the puzzle that’s never completed.

“No one ever goes to work intending to hurt themselves. Dr Kelleher’s approach helps people learn the physiological blocks, realise how they’re processing information, and regain full control of their mind and body. Many of Eastland Group’s operational team are in safety-critical roles and I knew they would benefit from these insights and techniques.

“We held three-hour sessions with 70 staff from Eastland Group, Eastland Port, Eastland Network and Eastland Generation. The feedback was extremely positive, and we plan to continue working with the teams to do additional training.”

“Catastrophic” accidents are still happening in the workplace, despite stringent health and safety rules, because our brains can't cope with the constant barrage of information from social media platforms, Gisborne workers have been told.

On a recent visit to Gisborne, behavioural scientist and business improvement specialist Dr Lucia Kelleher said workers in today’s technology-heavy society were working mostly on autopilot because of “Busy Brain Syndrome”.

“There is so much stuff in our environment that we have to deal with these days, and it has caused Busy Brain Syndrome (BBS) . . . we are all suffering from brain overload, which means there is just too much for the brain to process.

“The brain processes information and everything that’s out there, and the brain doesn’t know not to process something because it’s a junk e-mail. It’s total bombardment.

“It’s like a glass of water — when the glass is full you can’t put any more in. What’s happened is that more than 60 percent of what we do each day has gone into autopilot unconscious.”

The implications of that diagnosis could be “catastrophic”, Dr Kelleher said.

“That’s why we are seeing an increase in these accidents where you run a red light — because you didn’t see it. For example, I trained all the train drivers for Queensland Rail because they had 300 incidents of a driver running a red light — and that was because of this.”

This overload presented as constant distraction, which erodes people’s ability to stay focused and impacts on everything people do at work.

A further fallout is when people are in the BBS state they perceive other people’s intentions through a “negative lens”, escalating reactionary behaviours and poor workplace relations.

The way to overcome BBS was to re-engage with the body.

“If you have the right boots on but the feet are doing the wrong thing, it’s not going to make any difference.”

Dr Kelleher discovered Busy Brain Syndrome during her PhD research. BBS is simply brain overload due to the consistently increasing speed of demands in the modern world, and resulting higher expectations from businesses and the marketplace. BBS is caused by brain “processing” demands from our fast-paced world radically outstripping the brain’s limited and finite processing “bandwidth”, which means things don’t get processed.

Driving through red lights

That helps explains why people drive through red lights without seeing them, or forget what they went into a room for.

Dr Kelleher was in Gisborne as part of a training course with Eastland Group staff.

“What we are doing is teaching them how to be safe people. Safety doesn’t make people safe, we have to encourage people to be safe people.

“It’s about teaching people how to be aware of their environment. We actually find that Busy Brain Syndrome takes away people’s capacity to be aware. They are focused on their busy brain, and usually something that’s not related to work — they are thinking about other things so they are not actually aware of their environment.

“So we find that accidents and incidents that occur where there’s a human factor involved, there’s no explanation for them. People don’t see stuff, people don’t hear stuff because they are in busy brain.”

Even if people were aware of safety rules at work, if they were not aware, they would probably not implement them, she said.

Eastland Group general manager of people and performance Jarred Moroney organised Dr Kelleher’s visit.

“I attended a safety psychology conference in Sydney, and Dr Kelleher spoke about Busy Brain Syndrome. Some lightbulbs went off for me. With health and safety, companies focus on policies and procedures. But truly understanding why an incident happens, from a human factors point of view, is often the piece of the puzzle that’s never completed.

“No one ever goes to work intending to hurt themselves. Dr Kelleher’s approach helps people learn the physiological blocks, realise how they’re processing information, and regain full control of their mind and body. Many of Eastland Group’s operational team are in safety-critical roles and I knew they would benefit from these insights and techniques.

“We held three-hour sessions with 70 staff from Eastland Group, Eastland Port, Eastland Network and Eastland Generation. The feedback was extremely positive, and we plan to continue working with the teams to do additional training.”

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