Loehr and Schwartz (2003) describe a ‘human energy crisis’ in the workplace, driven by ‘always-on’ technology, longer working hours eating into recuperation time and the increasing interpersonal nature of work.
This is worrying, because as Fritz et al (2011) point out, human energy is the “fuel that helps organisations run successfully.” Tackling this energy crisis, by helping employees create and sustain energy, must therefore be a focus for organisations looking to drive performance through wellbeing.
Energy at work: what do we need?
We need a sustained, stable level of energy in the workplace. Why?
Work is a marathon, not a sprint, which makes high peaks and low troughs of energy unsuitable for the environment. High performance comes from being effective and efficient every day.
A sustainable energy supply is easier to focus, and focus is important for success in the workplace (Schippers and Hogenes, 2011). If we don’t focus, we use our energy to achieve things that aren’t important, or end up being pulled between different tasks to the detriment of them all.
6 ways employees can increase energy levels and focus
Develop clear goals and break these down into single tasks
Energy without focus can lead to irritability, boredom, procrastination and lack of results. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) found that having clear goals was a prerequisite of focusing energy, so it’s very important to take the time to set clear goals and break these down into tasks that contribute directly to these goals.
Reflect on the best use of your time and energy
Do this and you’ll use your energy more effectively than those that don’t. Bruch and Ghoshal (2002) found that 90% of managers in a global oil company and in an airline wasted their time and productivity due to a perceived lack of personal discretion and control.
Work is a marathon, not a sprint, which makes high peaks and low troughs of energy unsuitable for the environment.
The researchers called this state active non-action. By taking control of your time and energy, and ensuring it is directed at achieving your goals (as above), you avoid a state of learned helplessness in which you are subject to the forces of other people’s workloads and goals.
Take action to avoid rumination and circular thinking
Rumination burns through energy but achieves nothing. Mindfulness can help quieten the mind and prevent energy wastage through rumination, as can physical exercise.
It’s difficult to stop ruminating entirely, so if you do find yourself doing it, try focusing it on analysis: Larn et al (2003) found that “analysing to understand” was not correlated with depression, the only type of rumination not to be.
Address the email problem
Fisher (1998) points out that interruptions are massively disruptive to workflow and the ability to direct energy to achieve a goal. Sustained interruptions can lead to burnout and a sense of being ‘frazzled.’
A particular problem nowadays is email because the potential for distraction is constant. We’ve put together an article on several methods to tackle email overload.
Start by setting up folders for high-level goals and then dragging your emails into these folders. You then focus on these emails when you’ve set aside time to work on that particular goal, rather than allowing emails to dictate your focus.
Cut down on caffeine and take physical exercise
Fritz, Fu Lam, Spreitzer (2011) found that employees that took a break to drink a caffeinated beverage came back with lower levels of vitality than before. Caffeine leads to energy peaks and troughs – particularly if you load your mug with sugar – which are unsuitable for sustained focus. Its physical effects, such as increased heart rate, also interfere with concentration.
In terms of exercise, the evidence of positive effect is overwhelming, including better health, reduced stress, better emotional wellbeing and a higher perception of energy levels. Some researchers suggest a ratio of 10:1 of work time to exercise time, so if you work 40 hours a week, you should aim for four hours of exercise a week.
Fritz, Fu Lam, Spreitzer (2011) found that employees that took a break to drink a caffeinated beverage came back with lower levels of vitality than before.
When taking breaks at work, focus on work-related activities
When you take a break at work, are you proactively managing your energy or trying to escape because you’re already stressed? Fritz, Fu Lam, Spreitzer (2011) suggest going for a walk during a break may simply be a reaction to stress because it neither correlates with increased vitality or fatigue. This may be true of similar activities, such as taking a coffee break.
Meanwhile, the researchers found that work-related breaks were correlated with vitality. These are ways to proactively manage your energy throughout the day. Here they are, in order of the strength of the correlation with vitality:
- Learning something new
- Focusing on what gives you joy at work
- Setting a new goal
- Focusing on something that will make a colleague happy
- Making time to show gratitude to someone you work with
- Seeking feedback
- Reflecting on how you make a difference at work
- Reflecting on the meaning of your work
What can HR do to help employees better manage energy?
- Create posters for the actions listed above: sustaining energy does not have to involve massive leaps. Small changes can make all the difference. Create posters for each of the actions listed above and leave them around the workplace, allowing staff to self-select into ideas they think will work for them.
- Use simple metaphors: employees need to understand the importance of energy before they take action. For example, you can imagine your energy levels as a filled bucket with a tap. Certain actions will open the tap and drain your energy, while others will fill up the bucket.
- Educate on ‘energy contagion’: Maslach et al (2001) found that employees with burnout can be ‘contagious’ to workers around them. This is not only true of burnout but low energy, pessimism, stress and more. When we are aware of how our negative states affect others, we are more motivated to take corrective action.
- Focus on servant leadership: Schippers and Hogenes (2011) call servant leadership, which focuses on helping others to be the best they can be, a “method for unleashing others’ energy.”