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Cultivate a High-Energy Workforce

4 kinds of energy refuel and recharge employees for better performance

A hand holding a light bulb with a brain inside of it.

​The U.S. workforce is rapidly being drained of energy. The 40-hour workweek is disappearing. Today, adults who work full time log an average of 47 hours a week, which equates to working nearly six days a week. Sixty-hour workweeks are not uncommon.

Blame it on globalization, the digital economy, a 24/7 mentality or any among a host of other reasons, but the result is the same.

"We have a human energy crisis that leads to fatigue, disengagement, judgment errors and stress," said Jack Groppel, Ph.D., co-founder of Johnson & Johnson's Human Performance Institute (HPI) in Orlando, Fla.

"People are not designed to run like computers at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. They need to take time to rest and recover," said Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project (TEP), a Yonkers, N.Y., firm that consults on employee engagement and performance.

While machines can run on a single energy source, human energy is more complex. When TEP and the Harvard Business Review surveyed 12,000 employees worldwide, they discovered that employees are far more satisfied and productive when their needs are met in four energy realms: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

A Holistic Approach to Energy Management

Energy, in its myriad forms, is the driver of performance. When organizations make a commitment to helping their people develop better energy-management skills, typically through efforts owned by HR, they are cultivating a high-performance culture.

HPI's Human Energy Pyramid is based on the scientific premise that achieving a level of sustained high performance requires an increase of energy capacity in all four key areas, with physical energy at the widest part of the base. Next, further up the pyramid, is emotional energy, and then mental energy. Spiritual energy is at the apex.

  • Physical energy is linked to physical health and is considered the foundation of energy management.
  • Emotional energy is associated with emotions that inspire confidence and promote resilience.
  • Mental energy is concerned with cognitive processes such as thinking, analyzing and decision-making.
  • Spiritual energy is associated with purpose, values and beliefs.

Physical Energy: Good Health = Good Business

"Physical health is the foundation for everything else," said Groppel, author of The Corporate Athlete (John Wiley & Sons, 1999). "The business world is an unhealthy culture of inactivity."

The average person who works in an office spends 9.3 hours a day in sedentary activities: sitting in meetings, participating in conference calls and staring at a computer screen or phone, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review.

"At the individual level, our key challenge is to create a healthy, rhythmic movement between activity and rest," said Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

To reset and recharge your energy reserves, HPI recommends "microbursts," which are 5- to 10-minute breaks you take throughout the day.

"It's designed to be a short bout of whatever it is that you need to do to briefly interrupt what's happening currently," said Groppel. It might be a mental timeout to daydream or meditate, an emotional timeout from a toxic boss or co-worker to reconnect with someone more supportive, or a chance go outside and get some fresh air.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Work/Life Balance: Is naptime a reasonable and worthwhile benefit to offer employees?]

At New Balance, a Boston-based athletic company, many employees work in sedentary jobs, despite having an active lifestyle outside of work. So New Balance implemented its Organization in MOTION program, convincing 750 employees who worked desk jobs (in product management, marketing, design, human resources) to participate in a 90-day trial. The goal was simple: to get people to move every 20-25 minutes, even if only to stand up and walk around.

The more people moved, the more energy they had throughout the day. Participants also reported feeling more engaged, focused and purposeful.

Well-designed initiatives can address multiple, interrelated energy needs. Johnson & Johnson set a companywide goal to become the world's healthiest company by 2020. In 2016, it conducted its first-ever global physical activity program, an initiative designed to get people moving and to raise money for Save the Children. During a 45-day period to see which department could rack up the greatest distance walked, 35,000 employees logged over 10 billion steps using the Healthy & Me mobile platform to chart their progress. By creating a friendly competition between co-workers and motivating employees to walk farther to earn a bigger company donation to charity, Johnson & Johnson was able to make an impact on workers' core energy needs.

Emotional Energy: The Mindfulness Solution

Western capitalism is looking to Eastern mysticism for solutions to the workforce energy crisis. Adobe, eBay, Facebook, General Mills and the U.S. Navy all support mindfulness programs.

Mindfulness, which is often associated with yoga and meditation, is the practice of focusing attention on the present moment and becoming aware of thoughts and feelings in an accepting, nonjudgmental way.

A 2016 study showed that employees who received two-week mindfulness training exhibited greater job satisfaction, reduced anxiety levels, better concentration and healthier interpersonal relationships. The average participant in Aetna's mindfulness program gained 62 minutes of productivity per week and reduced his or her health care cost by $2,000 annually, the company reports.

Mental Energy: Drowning in Work

The magnitude of information that people receive on a daily basis has surpassed the ability to consume it. Even high achievers struggle to keep up, become overwhelmed and burn out from exhaustion.

As a leadership and team performance consultant for McDonald's, Laurie Anderson, Ph.D., developed a coaching program to address the growing dissatisfaction in one of the company's regional business offices. The program targeted approximately 200 employees in various functions (operations, marketing, finance, HR) who were struggling to keep up with increasing workplace demands and ever-changing priorities and were frustrated by their lack of progress.

"We wanted to help them determine where they could excel and focus on those activities," Anderson said. Plus, "we saw it as their manager's job to help remove the obstacles that were preventing them from succeeding."

The Setting Up for Success coaching program required managers to meet monthly with each of their staff members to establish priorities, clarify expectations, and set meaningful and achievable goals based on real-time schedules and legitimate time constraints. Follow-up surveys showed improved job satisfaction and reduced stress.

There were likely many factors that contributed to McDonald's successful coaching initiative, including the presence of an engaged manager who was working with employees to help them succeed.

"The ability to energize [a group of people] isn't a function of personality. It's about letting people know they matter," said Wayne Baker, a management professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Energizers elevate the performance of the people around them."

With the right mindset and set of soft skills, anyone can become an energizer, regardless of his or her position in the organization. Baker's research shows that energizers do five things very well:

  1. Focus on future possibilities rather than past problems.
  2. Help others feel fully engaged.
  3. Learn from their colleagues.
  4. Pursue goals in a flexible way that involves others.
  5. Communicate honestly and openly.

Baker and his colleagues use organizational network analysis to create energy maps that allow managers to identify "bright stars and dark holes." 

"By mapping relationships, managers can see where energy is being created and where it is depleted. They can then take action, encouraging simple change in behaviors to increase energy in places where its lack is hindering the progress," said Baker.

De-energizers may not realize they are de-energizing. When they become aware of how their behavior demotivates others, they are sometimes willing to take steps to improve. They may benefit from working with a business coach (or employee assistance program counselor) who can help them develop better interpersonal skills.

To transform negative statements into positive solutions, Jon Gordon, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., leadership coach, recommends implementing the "no complaining rule"—which doesn't prevent employees from speaking out but does help them articulate challenges in a more positive way.

"Complaints are only useful when they become the catalyst for the solution," said Gordon, author of The No-Complaining Rule (Wiley, 2008). The goal is to eliminate venting and mindless complaining and encourage justified complaints that can potentially improve processes and policies.

"You can't complain unless you come up with a solution," Gordon said. "When energizers hear a suggestion they disagree with, they don't dismiss it outright. They search for what's good in the suggestion."

Spiritual Energy: Let the Spirit Move You

Spiritual energy is associated with mission and purpose.

"The 'why' matters," said Jeff Wolf, president of Wolf Management, a San Diego executive coaching firm, and author of Seven Disciplines of a Leader (John Wiley, 2014). "When people have meaningful work, they get inspired. HR can help them understand the big picture—what their work means and why it matters."

Spiritual energy also derives from the feeling of joy that naturally energizes people when they're having fun.

When Duane Trammell and the late Ann McGee-Cooper researched and wrote You Don't Have to Go Home from Work Exhausted (Bantam, 1992), their goal was to develop "creative engineering" guidelines for organizations. Trammell and McGee-Cooper were partners in Trammell McGee-Cooper and Associates, a Dallas-based consulting firm. They discovered that a "balanced blend of work and play" throughout the day was essential to energy renewal. People who were able to strengthen the link between work and play were naturally energized.

At Dimension Data Americas, a global technology company in Reston, Va., two employees share the title of Chief Fun Officer. Their job is to create a stronger sense of community in the workplace by facilitating social engagement among peers. Recently the company worked as a team to restore a meadow in a Fairfax, Va., park. By doing something fun together to help the environment, they treated themselves to a double spiritual boost.

To Increase Energy, Make It Personal

Self-awareness is essential to the development of energy management skills. HPI offers a free self-energy profile that you can use to better understand your energy deficits and to craft a personal energy-management plan.

When you integrate an energy mindset into your work as an HR professional, it can impact a wide range of responsibilities. You can focus on recruiting and hiring energizers, coaching employees and managers to become energizers, and developing programs that promote positive energy-management skills.

"Increasing energy elevates individual, team and organization performance—and makes the workplace a lot more enjoyable," Baker said. "It's worth the effort."

To implement a widespread program, HR must recruit champions at every level—from the front lines to the C-suite—and make sure that everyone understands what the organization is trying to accomplish and why it matters.

"HR is the most important cog in the wheel," Groppel said. "It's their job to shepherd the process."

Of course, it takes a lot of energy to transform an organizational culture. Before you undertake that kind of large-scale project, work on developing your own energy-management skills. Then you can be a role model who others can look to for inspiration and advice.

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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