5 reasons organisations must manage their people’s energy effectively 

Employee engagement and wellbeing specialist Lana Hindmarch talks about burnout prevention.

Sarah, 42, is married with three young children. She works 10 to 12 hour days, is always exhausted and finds it difficult to fully engage with her family in the evenings, which leaves her feeling guilty and empty. She doesn’t sleep well, hardly exercises anymore, and makes all the wrong food choices.

It’s been a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world for some time, and her workplace is demanding more from her. Sarah responds to rising expectations by putting in longer hours, pushing herself harder than ever to keep up and increasingly feels she is at a breaking point – physically, mentally, and emotionally. She is not alone. Two thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

And that was pre-Covid.

Fast forward six months and with the worldwide remote work measures taken in response to the pandemic, the digital economy has grown more rapidly than ever before. This, compounded by our ‘always on’ culture, means people like Sarah are putting in even longer hours.

Energy versus time

The main problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource.

There are a finite number of hours in a day and in a week for people to deliver on their work, manage personal commitments and look after themselves. Time can’t be controlled in the work environment. What can be controlled, however, is energy – the energy available for employees to perform.

In physics, energy is defined as “the capacity to work”. More energy means the capacity to do more work.  Energy comes from four main sources in human beings – body, mind, emotions and spirit. Looking after these four sources is fundamental to energy management and is also the foundation for efficient operation.

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their book, The Power of Full Engagement, say: “To be fully engaged in our lives, we must be physically energised, emotionally connected, mentally focused, and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest.”

Full engagement enables complex decision-making, dynamic learning, and innovation.

Full capacity or full energy makes it possible to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement and with more sustainability. With full energy also comes resilience, trust and human empathy, all of which are critical to operate in new, collaborative ecosystems.

So then, it makes sense that if energy is a key driver of performance, that it would be a key strategic priority. Yet, this is often not the case and many organisations tend to actually diminish the energy of their people. Employees are unhealthily busy, overscheduled and depleted. As a result, they are experiencing a personal energy crisis. In fact, depleted energy may be one of the reasons more than two-thirds of employees have been less than fully engaged at work for the past two decades (Gallup Organisation)

Most large organisations invest in developing employees’ skills, knowledge, and competence. All organisations invest in safety. In fact, 95 percent of the health and safety budget still typically goes to safety. Yet, very few organisations have made it part of their strategic plans to build and sustain their most precious resource – the energy of their people.

Five reasons

I think there are five main reasons why organisations are not investing in their people’s energy.

  1. Ignorance. Firstly, organisations don’t know how to preserve people's energy. The tools for sustaining high performance and true people productivity are not taught in business schools. Leadership development courses rarely touch the issue of energy management, either individually or organisationally.
  2. It’s not a priority. Some leaders may ask why people’s energy should be a business concern. They may think that a leader's job is simply to improve business performance. While this is true, it overlooks the effect of individual wellbeing on corporate performance.
  3. ROI. Business leaders often demand an immediate, quantifiable return on their investment. While it is clear that investing in the energy of employees results in happier, healthier more engaged employees, this is still, in some organisations, seen as too ‘soft’ a metric.
  4. Old dogs, new tricks. Many workplaces are still stuck in old paradigms, dehumanised thinking and simply don’t care enough about their people. Many still think of business as a jungle in which “the nature of business is business” and where survival of the fittest is the cardinal rule.
  5. Status quo is sufficient. Some companies think they are doing enough through their once-a-year wellness days and traditional monitoring and tracking programmes. These, however, are tick-box exercises that are generally poorly attended and don’t result in true empowerment or lasting behaviour change.

What leaders can do

If human energy is going to be one of the most important performance differentiators in the new world of work, organisations will need to shift their emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them.

This will include rethinking wellbeing strategies and creating the conditions for a more holistic view of the employee, one that encompasses the maximising of all four sources of energy – the body, emotions, mind, and spirit.

Employees need to be equipped, beyond just information and awareness, with tools and programmes to help them understand the costs of energy-depleting behaviours and then how to move into action to elevate their self-care, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.

Leaders need to model what good energy management looks in their own lives. They also need to be accountable for managing their people’s energy, either by building this capability with the right partners and vendors or through their own learning and development.

CHROs have the wind at their backs

The pandemic has shown what many forward-thinking CHROs have known for a long time, that organisational resilience – the ability to adapt, innovate, and succeed – is directly linked to employees’ individual physical, mental and emotional energy.

We know the old model isn’t coming back. It was already breaking down when the crisis hit. We have been talking about putting people first for a long time. CHROs have an immediate opportunity to make this a reality.

There is an opportunity now to build a better 'normal' where people are invested in, more than they are diminished. There is an opportunity to shape a new reality based on how human beings really operate, and what we need to optimise our energy and truly thrive.