The impact of confinement, isolation on your workforce

What can killer whales in captivity teach us about our employees and their work environment? The answer may surprise you. Killer whales are highly intelligent animals and they exhibit cognitive abilities similar to humans. In the oceans they live in complex and highly social family pods of 20 to 50 animals. Killer whales are strong and genetically gifted, often electing to travel long distances each day and vocalizing almost constantly in a rich and complex dialect, keeping the entire group updated on their location relative to one another.

Removing a killer whale from the ocean, isolating him or her from their family and putting them into an acoustically dead cement pond is, to say the least, a limiting and stressful environment. The captive killer whale is reduced to swimming in circles emitting distress vocals, or floating listlessly and silent on the surface of the water, both behaviors indicating the animal is bored and chronically stressed. Researchers have observed that confining intelligent animals with complex social systems, such as the orca, in small spaces leads them to exhibit neurotic behaviors. One can certainly understand how the stress of captivity in unnatural surroundings compounded by the abnormal demands from training and performance, can lead to anxiety, depression, boredom, even bleeding ulcers along with other physical and emotional ailments.

Do you see the parallels and lessons here? Humans are highly intelligent animals as well, exhibiting complex cognitive abilities and intricate family ties similar in many respects to killer whales. A human's natural environment is not generally the workplace, and yet at least five days a week, seven and one half hours a day for the vast majority of their adult lives many humans leave their homes and travel to a job location where they are confined to a small office or cubicle, isolated from family and friends and subjected to the stress, rigors and demands associated with the performance of their jobs. The employee at times finds himself or herself trapped in a stressful environment, swimming around and around in circles in their own version of a cement ponds. What to do?

Behavioral enrichment, also known as environmental enrichment, is used to enhance the lives and existence of captive killer whales by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior. Trainers' goals are to create an environment that is fun, interesting and stimulating. Trainers learn early on that if they fail to provide their animals with the excitement they need, it is certain the animals will create the excitement themselves, a situation that can be both destructive and dangerous for the animals and trainers alike.

Trainers focus on building strong and rewarding relationships with the animals based on a history of positive interaction. They reinforce behavior not with punishment for bad conduct but with a variety of rewards for good and appropriate conduct. And one I found particularly interesting, trainers have determined that using a variety of reinforcements is an important training strategy. If rewards become routine and predictable, animals may become bored, unmotivated, frustrated and even aggressive. Using a variety of rewards has been determined to be much more motivating to the animals.

If the concept of environmental enrichment works for captive killer whales, then I suggest it can be of benefit to your employees, many of whom are captive at the workplace in confined spaces in an environment that is often times boring and predictable. As an employer it is important that you have regular and meaningful contact with your employees. Stop by their office or cubicle on a regular basis, even if only for a moment. Get to know them. Learn the names of their children, and their hobbies. Engage them in conversation and strive to gain their trust. Remember to congratulate and reward them for good performance. There is no substitute for a personal face-to-face meeting to congratulate an employee for a job well done. While it is sometimes necessary to reprimand for serious or repeat bad behavior, it is a far better practice to place your emphasis on rewards. Rewarding behavior motivates animals, and employees alike to repeat desired behaviors and to stay interested. In addition to offering a heart felt congratulations for a job well done, offer tangible rewards as well, and don't make it the same reward over and over again. Mix it up. Keep it unpredictable. It will keep them interested and motivated. For example, this holiday season reward your entire staff by taking them out to lunch, or plan a potluck at the office with everyone volunteering to bring a dish. Allow them to decorate their work space for the holidays. Consider having a casual dress day and if your business is open on Christmas Eve or New Years Eve let them go home early to their families.

Let's be clear about this. Humans when confined to small offices and cubicles, working under the rigors and demands of their job are naturally prone to boredom and anxiety, no matter how nice the facility. Bored and stressed out employees are not happy and productive employees. This can lead to employees acting out in ways that not only hurt your business but damage morale and creates additional stress amongst his or her fellow workers. Certainly, your job as their employer is to keep your eye on the bottom line and get assigned tasks completed in a timely manner. But I suggest we should also take a page from the trainers of captive killer whales. Dedicate a portion of your time to building trust with your employees and taking steps to keep them interested and engaged.

David McElhinney is a partner with Lewis and Roca in Reno. Contact him at 321-3414 or


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