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We Can’t Outrun Our Biology

Given the links between the human body and organizational effectiveness, we suggest three steps to leaders to mitigate harmful risks—and optimize the way people live and work.

It’s tempting to conceive of businesses as economic islands that can be independently optimized by considering only a handful of operational variables, like product performance, efficiency, and financial returns.

But increasing awareness of how economic activity is encroaching on the limits of finite planetary resources has overturned this simplistic view. Most businesses now clearly acknowledge their dependence on and embeddedness within the larger systems of society and nature and have expanded their conception of strategy accordingly.

Recent science further deepens this “multi-systems” view of business by illuminating the deep connectedness among work environments, cellular biology, human health, and decision making. This requires companies to expand their conception of “sustainability” inwardly and reconsider how work is structured and managed, beyond the much discussed issue of flexibility of time and location.

Our Bodies, Our Minds, Our Jobs

Good decision making lies at the core of successful business strategy and execution. Though much attention is given to the financial and behavioral aspects of making wise choices, less attention has been given to the invisible biological foundations—and limits—we hit up against each day that directly shape our decision-making ability.

These biological limits are dependent on the interactions between our cellular health and our work environment.

The limits of cellular health

Healthy cells in every organ in our body rely on a delicate balance in our metabolism, the hundreds of thousands of life-sustaining chemical reactions that convert food to energy, use that energy to build and maintain the body, and eliminate waste.

As with other natural systems, this cellular balance between growth and repair maintains a safe operating zone (a narrow range of temperature and pH) through a process called homeostasis, beyond which cellular function breaks down.

These evolved cellular mechanisms effectively rely on principles of energy conservation and efficiency, minimizing waste and recycling old or damaged parts, and maintaining stability through an intricate web of cell-to-cell communications mediated by various hormones and metabolites.

One of the key regulators of cellular metabolism are mitochondria. These organelles are descendants of ancient bacteria that symbiotically co-evolved in multicellular organisms. Though popularly known as simple “cell batteries” converting the food we eat into ATP (adenosine-triphosphate, the unit of cellular chemical energy), recent scientific advances in systems biology now point to their ubiquitous role in almost every aspect of cellular health and disease.

Inflammation and disease

Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to any kind of injury and is an integral part of the process of healing, for example, if we scrape our hand, there is bleeding, redness, and swelling, followed by scab formation and repair of skin.

However, injury comes in many different forms. Think of the onslaught of physical, environmental, mental, emotional, and social stressors—big and small—that we navigate each day.

When the capacity of mitochondria to mitigate this stress load is exceeded—when we don’t pay attention to how we eat, move, sleep, or manage psychological strain, or to the environmental pollutants we expose ourselves to, it precipitates a low-grade response called chronic inflammation. This disrupts cellular metabolism and energy production, resulting in cellular damage, and creates a self-perpetuating cycle of even more inflammation. [1]Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. “Chronic Inflammation in the Etiology of Disease across the Life Span.” Nat Med. 2019;25(12):1822-32.

This kind of internal cellular energy crisis often simmers in the body sub-clinically, without any overt symptoms that we are aware of in our daily lives.

However, it is reflected in several blood biomarkers indicating dysregulation of blood sugar, insulin resistance, reduced biodiversity of the gut microbiome, hormonal imbalance, elevated blood pressure, deposition of visceral fat around abdominal organs, and narrowing of arteries that carry blood to the heart and brain.

Inflammation is the starting point of almost all lifestyle-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, many cancers, strokes, auto-immune disease, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Three out of four people in the US, and increasingly globally, will suffer from one or more of these diseases in their lifetime. They account for upward of 75% of our healthcare spend in the US, creating a huge avoidable expense for individual companies and for society as a whole.

Inflammation and decision making

Beyond disease, new research shows that even low levels of inflammation also influence our decision making in the moment.[2]Gassen J, Prokosch M, Eimerbrink MJ, et al. “Inflammation Predicts Decision-Making Characterized by Impulsivity, Present Focus, and an Inability to Delay Gratification.” Sci Rep. 2019;9:4928. Biologically, inflammation is interpreted by our body as a signal that our immediate survival is at stake, and we must grab any resources we can get our hands on, making us impulsive, unable to delay gratification, and prone to short termism.

Lifestyle imbalances such as sleep deprivation add fuel to this fire, by increasing emotional lability, impulsivity and risky decision making while reducing focus, memory, speed, and accuracy.[3]Williamson, A.M., et al. 2000. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. … Continue reading [4]Whitney, P., et al., 2015. Feedback Blunting: Total sleep deprivation impairs decision-making that requires updating based on feedback. Sleep. 38 (5), 745-54. [5]Nicola Toschi and others, Sleep quality relates to emotional reactivity via intracortical myelination, Sleep, Volume 44, Issue 1, January 2021, zsaa146.

The exposome

Mitochondria and cellular health do not function in isolation. They are dependent on the so called exposome[6]Paolo Vineis, Robert Barouki. “The exposome as the science of social-to-biological transitions.” Environment International, Vol 165, 2022., an individual’s total cumulative environmental exposures from conception onward.

The exposome includes factors such as climate, air quality, industrial chemicals, pesticides, radiation, urbanization, food and water, tobacco, medications, and microbiome; lifestyle behaviors such as how we eat, move, sleep, and manage stress; and our social support and economic status.

These exposures are interpreted and responded to by our cells and mitochondria through shifts in important biological pathways such as inflammation and epigenetics—mechanisms such as DNA methylation and histone modifications that determine which genes are turned on or off at any given moment.

In other words, our health as well as our ability to think, feel, move, act, collaborate, create, make decisions, and relate—everything we do in our work and personal lives—is an outcome of the interplay between the exposome and cellular metabolism.

The greater the imbalances in the exposome, the worse our cellular health and inflammation.

Paying Attention to the Workplace Exposome

It’s now widely appreciated that business decisions have ecological consequences which in turn can have negative business consequences, such as the depletion of input materials, an inability to attract talent, undermining stakeholder trust, social sanction, and restrictive regulation.

In the same way, the working environment has biological consequences which in turn have direct business consequences, including reduced motivation, elevated absenteeism, elevated health care costs, and poor decision making.

As such, we need to extend inward the vision of businesses as systems embedded in, and dependent on other systems (society, nature) to pay more attention to the working environment.

How then in practical terms can we ensure that the business exposome is sustainable for health and decision making?

Embracing Biology as Part of the Future of Work

Given the above links between the human body and organizational effectiveness, leaders should take several steps to mitigate harmful risks—and optimize the way people live and work.


We must begin by becoming aware of the importance of the link among the conditions of work, cellular biology, and the consequences for decision making and business health.

Given the new findings of the effects of the exposome on employee health, productivity, and decision making, leaders should now recognize organizational culture as a powerful social, economic, environmental, and psychological exposure for themselves and their teams.

This provides a cogent motivation for prioritizing and tracking employee well-being and the six causes of burnout[7]Maslach, Christina, and Michael P. Leiter. 2008. “Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93 (3): 498–512 (work overload, perceived lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and value conflict) as a strategic business imperative.

The “future of work” has received much attention following the disruptions of COVID, but has mainly focused on issues of temporal and locational flexibility and on the impact of AI on jobs and productivity. It needs to expand to deal with the issues of biological sustainability.


As individuals there is much that we can do to lower our inflammatory load to improve mitochondrial health and metabolism, including:

  • Align daily routines with the body’s circadian rhythms—eating, moving, and working during the daytime with 7 to 9 hours of time to rest, fast, and sleep at night—allowing for optimal cellular repair and regeneration
  • Shift from being sedentary to moving the body daily, which increases focus, learning, and memory through the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor[8]Erin I. Walsh, Lisa Smith, et al. Towards an understanding of the physical activity-BDNF-cognition triumvirate: A review of associations and dosage,Ageing Research Reviews,Volume 60, 2020. and a decrease in cellular oxidative stress
  • Minimize exposure to air pollution and increase time in nature, which lowers stress hormone levels
  • Reduce consumption of sugary, processed foods and increase intake of whole, fiber-rich plant foods to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, and increase biodiversity of the gut microbiome

Unlocking this potential requires education to link the latest scientific findings to practical actions and supporting tools for lasting behavior change.


Environmental sustainability was initially treated by most businesses as a set of considerations to be managed separately from core business processes. More recently, there has been much effort to make sure that it is baked into business strategy and operations. Analogously, workplace well-being programs have traditionally been considered mainly as “nice-to-have” and “add-on” offerings for employees. This is reflected in the fact that the actual quality and utilization of these services is highly variable, with mixed outcomes.

The COVID pandemic helped to raise awareness of the underlying stress, mental health, and burnout epidemic at work. However, post-pandemic, burnout rates continue to rise—up to 48% among employees and 53% among managers.[9]Microsoft Work Trend Index Report 2022 There is also a stark discrepancy between the perception of workforce well-being among executive leadership (three out of four believe it has improved) and the ground reality of their employees (the majority report that well-being has worsened or stayed the same).[10]Deloitte Wellbeing at Work Survey 2023

While both executives and teams may be individually motivated to improve their well-being, heavy workloads, long work hours, and stressful cultures make this difficult to put into practice. At the same time, most employees recognize the need for more than just a better health benefits program. Well-being needs to be embedded systematically, as part of its core business processes from performance assessment, through sustainability efforts, to leadership training.

In particular, companies need to expand inwardly how they think about sustainability, both through self-interest and collective welfare. Beyond the impact on finite planetary resources, they need to concern themselves with the conditions they create for human biology. Such measures are perfectly feasible for any firm to embrace, as illustrated in the example below.

In short, we are beginning to realize that we can’t outrun our biology, however tempting it is to believe that there are no limits to our capacity to handle stress or to produce. Paradoxically, it is only by attending to these limits that we can sustain our effectiveness over time.

How one financial services firm addressed inward sustainability

A global financial-services firm recognized that its current workflow, workloads, and reward systems were the main contributors to the increasing levels of reported burnout and attrition on their teams. This prompted a few changes:

  • A leadership mind-set shift from well-being being solely an employee’s individual responsibility to one that is a by-product of the company’s culture and work environment
  • Managers regularly checking in with their teams to assess and redistribute workloads; setting clear norms and expectations for email and other internal communication response times; and devoting time to addressing well-being issues during performance reviews
  • A department-wide initiative to prune total and individual meeting times, providing more room for uninterrupted, focused, and creative work during the workday
  • Adding frequent touchpoints for public recognition (town halls, team meetings) as emotional rewards in addition to its financial incentive system
  • Increased adoption by employees of evidence-based guidelines for sleep, movement, and nutrition as part of their daily routines
  • A reiteration of their existing organizational value of “entrepreneurialism” and “innovation,” in this case, leaders modeling a culture of well-being
  • Parneet Pal

    Founder of Systematically Well Advisory Inc., Harvard-trained physician-educator

  • Martin Reeves

    Chairman, BCG Henderson Institute

Sources & Notes