People provide the human energy that fuels organizations. If we seek to renew human energy, rather than simply use it up, we try to build ways that sustain rather than just use people. Like the Green movement's goal - renew rather than use up fuels - a sustaining organization can be conscious about renewing its people.
Envision a workplace that gives you as much or more than you contribute. You go to work, in to the current of the environment, start your tasks, feel more and more energized all day, go home and have enough energy to enjoy your personal life. You even have the energy to make significant contributions to your community since your work doesn't totally consume you. Then, the next day, you go back to work and plug in again. If your work is giving you energy, your career is sustainable. If you come home wired, tired, sad, frightened or hopeless, it may be draining you. Burned-out employees aren't happy people, often aren't terribly healthy and can drain the workplace. As such, it behooves leaders to build a work environment that builds, rather than drains energy.
There are three realms of energy that can be renewed in the workplace: individual, team and organizational. Although these three domains interact with one another, today's column will focus on individual physical energy. The next column will address how to build emotional energy - particularly in times of change.
We know a great deal about individual energy and that productive employees need good energy to do good work. Firstly, there are two main types of energy: that which is stored (potential energy) and that which is usable (kinetic energy). Eastern societies call potential energy yin, and kinetic energy is yang. The goal of workplace health is to create an environment that appropriately uses and restores employee energy, creating a balance between yin and yang. Balance does not mean that they must be equal all the time. There will always be periods of time when a workplace needs to go the extra mile and use more energy than usual. Anticipating this, leaders should also plan for periods of renewal following intense times.
There are physical variables that are necessary to sustain energy. First of all, you need enough sleep or you will be tired, not perform as well and make more mistakes. The literature on sleep deprivation is very clear that enough sleep is non-negotiable when it comes to productivity (See my article "Wake Up to Sleep Deprivation" for more detail on this subject). There is enormous evidence that sleep-deprived employees are less organized, productive and resilient than those who sleep enough. There is also evidence that they create more work for others. Sadly, the most recent research shows that most sleep-deprived people don't even know they are, so it is hard to help them become aware of their problem.
Leaders can set a tone that encourages people to rest after work. One organization in which I worked forbade e-mail correspondence after 7 pm and on weekends. Another created a "power nap" room for 20-minute rest periods during busy work times. Still another added medical coverage for treatment of sleep disorders and encouraged employees with sleep problems to get help. The most effective monitor, however, is to notice if your people are wired, tired or both, and reduce or re-allocate work so that they feel less pressure. Dedicated people will not want to relinquish responsibility nor voluntarily admit fatigue. The art of the manager is to let the person de-escalate without losing face.
"Vacation time" is intended to replenish people. However, driven people who think they are indispensable may not take the time off. Once again, the enlightened, energy-renewing manager will mandate taking time off as good behavior and firmly guide workers to take their vacation time. Supervisors should consider it their responsibility to tell people to leave work rather than assuming they will leave without encouragement.
People also need food that energizes them throughout the workday. Sustained energy comes from nonprocessed, non-sugary foods, eaten at intervals throughout the day. If you think of food sustaining a fire that needs to be generating heat to keep you alive, then the proteins are logs, carbohydrates are thicker sticks, fruits are twigs, and vegetables and minerals are the air needed to keep the fire burning. Sugary starches burn away like paper, adding a short burst that actually is followed by a low.
Some companies understand the value of the well-fed employees and make nutrition a priority in terms of company benefits. Google, for example, pioneered its Café 150, which buys more than 90 percent of its food from within 150 miles of the headquarters. A San Francisco Chronicle article published on March 1, 2006, noted:
"With its dedication to providing free and largely healthful, organic and artisan-produced meals three times a day to its employees, Google may well be leading the way in corporate food-service programs in the same way it has set the bar for search engines.
"By the sheer numbers of its employees - Google is mum, but estimates put it at 4,000 and growing - and its purchasing power, the company will likely affect the survival rate of local, small, organic farms as well as what ingredients appear in local markets and, down the line, how much agricultural land is saved from development."
Google not only provides good food; it also allows for the time to eat. Most people in workplaces grab lunch, if they eat at all. In addition, healthy foods are available as take out dinners to employees who may not have the time to cook during the work week. No wonder the company wins awards for staff retention.
Exercise is another physical variable necessary for well being. Combating the American childhood obesity epidemic, schools are now mandating physical education and after-school programs are re-committing to exercise. Many children, however, live a life dominated by TV, cell phone and computer games, which occupy a lot of play time and have no physical benefit. Nonetheless, policy makers believe that it is good to exercise during the day, and hope the pattern holds into adulthood.
Workplaces, however, assume that your work day should be exclusively for work, and that exercise, if done at all, is a personal thing and should be done after hours. The benefits of consistent exercise have been well-documented. Regular aerobic exercise improves stamina, cardiovascular function, mood and flexibility. Strength training improves strength, reduces injuries and assists in the prevention of osteoarthritis and loss of bone density. Yoga, Pilates and stretching exercises improve flexibility, mood and improve sleep, in addition to proving beneficial in managing pain. If so much good comes from exercise, why don't organizations support employees in doing it more regularly?
Again, Google's approach provides sharp contrast to the national norm, as they also offer:
Recreation Facilities: Workout room with weights and rowing machine, locker rooms, washers and dryers, massage room, assorted video games, Foosball, baby grand piano, pool table, ping-pong, roller hockey twice a week in the parking lot.
Hallway Décor: Bicycles and large rubber exercise balls on the floors, press clippings from around the world posted on bulletin boards everywhere. In short, exercise and movement fits into a work day. Consequently, more employees exercise.
Workplace cultures can support energy renew ability, or they can drain energy. Again, Google demonstrates its commitment with energy-renewing architecture. More than 30 percent of Google's peak energy is generated by solar technology built by the company. Additionally, Google has committed to many other ways of improving its carbon footprint, including investing in large renewable-energy projects, and even helping its users go green. There are people who say they feel better in environments with good air, light and warmth, and feel better in renewable environments.
In these fragile economic times, there is more stress in workplace, and energy is lost through insecurity, fear and the increased workload. It is the right time for leaders and mangers to commit to renewing the energy of employees. Sustaining people rebuilds hope.
Click here for previous articles by Nancy Post, MAc, PhD.