IQ drops due to work stress

Danielle Hellebrand: “Our brains only have a certain bandwidth.”
Image: Peter Schols

She worked as an executive at various companies. Sometimes she moved mountains, sometimes she came to nothing. How was that possible, after all? That continued to fascinate her. Daniëlle Hellebrand (53) from Vaals quit her job and dived into the world of our brains. Her main conclusion: tension and stress do not make us smarter.

“The ‘rat race’ we live in affects our brains. There is little time to think calmly and that doesn’t do the brain any good. Chances increase that we are going to make wrong choices.” Daniëlle Hellebrand researched the functioning of our brain during her master’s in cognitive neuroscience at the universities of Chicago and Cologne. What’s going on in there?

People are ‘on’ all day long. In general we manage to adapt very well. The corona crisis is a good example of this. But there is a limit, says Hellebrand. “Our brain has only a certain bandwidth. It can’t take in an infinite amount of information at the same time. So you start selecting.”


Stress doesn’t help with that in any case, she emphasizes. “Look at your workplace. Stress starts in the absence of social interaction: not a nice team, not a pleasant atmosphere, distrust. The greatest pain but also the greatest joy we feel have to do with relationships.”

So it’s hearteningly important, Hellebrand argues, that colleagues stand up for each other, respect and appreciate each other. “And the work has to be meaningful. Otherwise it creates stress, which makes you unable to think properly. You go on autopilot. You might manage to write that one article, but not to think up a whole new economics supplement. You can forget about innovation. You need a whole team for that; the world is too complex to do it alone.”

“Managers should put their ego aside”


Companies need to realize this well. According to Daniëlle Hellebrand, managers should facilitate more and “put their ego aside a bit.” An employee really doesn’t lie awake over the quality of the coffee at work, nor over a laptop that might be a bit outdated. Stress comes from the social angle, her research shows, and is partly caused by a lack of communication, the absence of an atmosphere where people dare to say what they want without being judged for it.

Stress at the workplace

1.3 million Dutch employees had burnout symptoms in 2019. The cost of absenteeism due to work stress has risen to 3.1 billion euros per year.

46 percent of employers report that work stress is an important risk in the company and 35 percent of employees cite work pressure/work stress as a reason for absenteeism..

Employers are trying to take steps to prevent stress. The most common measure is to give employees more autonomy to manage their own work.

Employees often think these measures are not enough. 44 percent think additional measures are needed.

As a result of the Corona crisis, jobs were lost and many people worked at home. Nevertheless, the number of burnout complaints remained about the same in the first wave: 17 percent.

“If you need a vacation to recover a bit, it takes exactly one day before the rested feeling is gone.”

Hellebrand denounces the bonus culture. “In that atmosphere it’s every man for himself and you’re really not going to share your findings and new insights. So in the end that won’t get you any further as a company. Sharing knowledge actually makes you stronger.”

One’s last legs

Quite a few people succumb to that stress. The number of people suffering from burnout or depression is much greater than those with physical complaints. “All those people will soon have to work until they are 67 or older. You don’t want to do that on your last legs, do you? Hellebrand paints a horror picture. “If you need a vacation to recover a bit, it takes exactly one day before the rested feeling is gone. In such a rat race you can’t think anymore, your brain is busy surviving and your social component is switched off. Your IQ drops by ten to fifteen points, and then you have to work until you’re 68!”

We should stop doing things that go against human nature, Hellebrand argues. She objects to annual performance reviews. “That takes you six days of brainpower. Three days ahead of the interview you wonder if you’ll get the bonus, on the day you hear that you did something wrong in March. Then you have to recover for three days. Nobody asks you what you actually learned during the last year.”

Because change and renewal can only be achieved with everyone else, it makes no sense to send only managers on training courses. When they return, the staff doesn’t know what the intention is, so nothing changes. That’s why you also have to send teams on training courses. Then everyone will know which way the company wants to go.


We also have to get rid of the ‘I, the all-knowing boss’ who dictates. “I see very independent and responsible people at companies, building houses, raising children, but if they want a new cable for their laptop, they first have to complete three application forms. We should stop doing that.”

Hellebrand uses her knowledge to write columns, give lectures and coach people. She uses the newest insights of Neurosciences to help people move forward professionally and in their private life. “Ultimately, the quality of our relationships, determines the quality of our lives. And I don’t mean those 500 friends on Facebook. At the end of life, you don’t look back with satisfaction because you have had such fine meetings for forty years. No, then it’s about the people with whom you had such a nice relationship all this time.”

Interview by Monique Evers

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