Energy at work

Energy at work

Natalie Dagnall is a qualified lawyer and runs an employment training and advisory consultancy called Lifewize. In this article Natalie discusses the role energy can play in the workplace and its potential impact
The aftermath of the Tsunami disaster, has given most of us the energy to take a long hard look at our priorities, perspectives and purpose in life. These new perspectives are likely to include assessment of the what's, where's and how's of work. Sadly most of us will make no changes in our lives despite the shock that could potentially energize us and motivate us to do so.

If you were given a blank canvas to paint your perfect workplace, what would you draw?

Some of you may start from the premise of what you would change in your current workplace. Others may want to start from fresh. Many would simply draw themselves on a golf course or working for charity. Although the upside of the latter is obvious, the revenue stream remains a challenge.We spend most of our waking hours at work so it's natural that we'd like that time to be meaningful and if possible pleasurable. However, the facts of life for most of us require that the pleasure is income generating to us personally and to the business as a whole. This article will focus on how we can make use of our individual energy to take positive action to get the most of our work, personally and for the organisation.

We all too often have heard the cliché that an employee feels like a "cog in a wheel".The connotation being a negative one, conjuring up the image of being one of many doing the same thing, day in day out, with little change or recognition. Alternatively, still negative, the feeling of constant pressure, increasing in intensity, from ever changing new directions. Let's develop the cliché a little further. Organisations, however large or small are very much like cars. To be effective they require a good driver (your CEO or business leader), clear directions (a business plan) and the right fuel (employees with energy).

Energy is a phrase somewhat taken for granted.We know it when we see it; we know it when we feel it. But very seldom are we taught to master or maximise it. People who use their energy well can be invigorating, inspiring and motivational. Energy can be contagious creating a field of inspiration and effectiveness. Energetic people have a "can do" approach to life and work, they are high performers.

So, why the mystery behind energy? Do we all have different capacity for energy? Is one person born with a 1500 cc engine while another has a 2-litre engine? Does energy come and go or can we control how much we have and when we feel it?

The relevance of energy
Some of these questions are debatable; some of them can be answered medically. Firstly we need to answer why energy is relevant to us and our workplace.Welldirected energy converts to positive action. If we are able to harness and manage energy effectively in our organisations we have the advantage of greater potential for ideas and creativity, a faster more effective workplace and a happier workforce.

From a non-medical perspective energy is closely linked to our desire. The more we want something the harder we will work for it. Our desire builds our energy, motivates us into action and achievement. If we classify our desires into broader "passions" our energy will be directly proportional to our passion. If we work on something we are passionate about we are more likely to throw everything, all our energy, into it and we will be more successful than our competitor who isn't as passionate and therefore has less energy. In the workplace a performance management system that focuses on strength building rather than weakness fixing follows this principal.Allowing employees to apply themselves in areas that require application of competencies that are their natural strengths leads to success building and is good use of energy.The employees are more likely to be passionate about this type of work and therefore more energetic and effective and the managers will be focusing their energy through management time, coaching and delegation skills on areas of work that are constructive. Conversely too much time spent on weakness fixing is poor use of energy. That is not to say that some energy should be applied to building competency and skills in areas of weakness, simply that the balance should be right. Positive use of energy creates power.

This brings us to the point of how much energy we have. Is there a limit to our energy? We are very aware of our time limitations in the office or workplace.Time management is a mantra that haunts us as we once again find we have failed to complete our "to do" list or get home in time to see the kids. Energy management is a more effective way of working our day in an unlimited fashion. Fact: there are only 24 hours in any given day. Fact: we have the potential to use our energy to translate these into a more effective, longer, less pressured day. If we arrive at the office exhausted or come home feeling worn out we are not only unlikely to perform at our best but we are failing ourselves, our organisations and our partners or family. Good energy management may mean being in the office less but achieving more. Conversely less time at home full of energy is more valuable that more time at home as an empty vessel. There is an essential difference between workaholics and high achievers. High achievers live smart.They work when they work, they play when they play and they pace themselves using their energy and stamina to apply themselves at the right times in the right way at the right level.

Energy management

So how do we manage our energy? Going back to our car analogy we cannot expect to perform at maximum speed and efficiency at all times. Every journey requires that we sometimes stop or take a turn or consider the crossroads. We need to refuel, sometimes even restructure or recharge our batteries. In our organisations we cannot expect our employees to perform at their peak all the time. During busy periods we can push for excellence provided we offer a suitable recharge opportunity or recovery time during or after the project depending on its scope.

Managers need to be skilled on how to maximise their team's energy without pushing to burnout levels. Employees need to learn to pace themselves appropriately to achieve greater energy and stamina without damaging their health. Maximising energy does not mean working longer hours without rest. Maximising energy means you get the best out of yourself and your team during specific periods of time.

Each of us experiences natural highs and lows during the day. In layman's terms we feel more energetic and effective at different stages in the day. During our high times we find it easier to apply ourselves. Our cerebral activity and application is greater. During low times we feel sluggish, our attention span is shorter and cerebral capacity is reduced.To maximise your energy you need to be aware of your natural rhythms Medically there are two types of biorhythms that affect your energy levels throughout the day: Circadian and Ultradian biorhythms. Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycle our bodies go through on a daily basis. To maximise and manage our energy effectively we need to be acutely aware of our personal circadian cycles and a manager needs to be aware of their team's circadian cycles. Most people classify themselves as a "morning, afternoon or night person". This ties in with their peak energy periods and flagging periods.To work smart we should plan our most demanding, cerebral or challenging tasks during our peak energy times.

Applying these facts in the workplace can be extremely beneficial. How many of us are in tune with your own daily biorhythms? How many of you know your team or co-workers biorhythms. Being aware of your team's natural highs and lows can be a very effective team management tool. For example, it is advisable to schedule routine meetings during the majority of your team's low or medium times rather than during high times, as more routine or administrative type meetings do not normally require maximum cerebral concentration. Organisations tend to schedule these meetings in the mornings, which coincide with the majority of people's high time, instead of midday or early afternoon, which would be a better time as this coincides with the majority of peoples low to medium time. Good team management would ensure that your team are left uninterrupted to focus on effective delivery of key goals and outputs during their maximum high time each day, where possible.

Good team management would also require that employees have breaks.They can be very short, but they are essential.This relates to the second type of biorhythm relevant to energy: ultradian rhythms. These are some of the many biological rhythms the mind and body experience that last less than 24 hours. Ideally our bodies require 20 minutes rest every 90 minutes if we are to perform at our optimum potential. Young children sometimes demonstrate this behaviour when they have high activity periods running and singing and playing which will suddenly cease and they may lie down for a short period to re-energise before becoming active again. Today's modern world and working structure does not make allowances for our natural ultradian rhythms. The 9 to 5 working day does not therefore optimise our potential productivity cycles. This is not to say we cannot use our knowledge of ultradian rhythms to our advantage.Taking a break and resting can be built into even the most pressured environments if you have the discipline. Power napping is a well-know technique that matches this need. Effective use of diary time means that emails, phone calls or admin can be used as a "break" between more challenging tasks. The coffee or lunch breaks also fulfil this role. Again managers should encourage employees in their team to identify their own rhythms and the type of break that is not too time consuming and refreshes them best to optimise their output.

Energy also links very closely with balance.When we feel in control of our lives, are focused on our passions and are able to deliver, we are likely to have good energy. When this balance changes, our energy dips and we may begin to feel stressed. Stress is a somewhat overused word in our lives today. Stress can be defined as a state we experience when there is a mismatch between perceived demands and perceived ability to cope. Stress applies to, and is felt by all of us differently but has repetitive organisational consequences. Therefore managing stress should be dealt with from an organisational perspective. This would take into account personal stress management techniques but these would fall within the framework of a larger organisational process.

Energy is also inextricably linked to sleep, diet and exercise. From an organisational perspective these appear to be within the scope of control of the individual, but as managers we can have an impact. Using a simple example, it is not a good idea to eat heavy stodgy pastas at lunchtime or to consume high-energy foods and caffeine before you go to bed. Education about diet can increase productivity. Encouraging employees to eat protein (energy food) at lunch and breakfast will impact on performance. Fruit and vegetables during the day keep you alert and maintain energy by stabilising the level of sugar in the blood. Many employees fall into the trap of spiking their blood sugar levels by regularly consuming high sugar content drinks or chocolate biscuits through out the day. This gives a short-lived energy boost, which quickly changes to a period of lethargy and tiredness. Many companies and schools today make fruit and vegetables available during the day. The results show that people will eat these healthy, energy-boosting alternatives if they are available.

Experiments also consistently show improvement in performance and attitude where fruit and vegetables are consumed more regularly. Similar results have been found when water is made more easily available.Water not only satisfies thirst it safeguards against dehydration. Dehydration directly affects alertness and clarity of thought. Returning to our car metaphor, employees need to be fully fuelled and oiled to maximise performance and be high flyers.

Once again it isn't rocket science that exercise has a direct impact on personal energy. Exercise increases (1) both physical and mental energy, (2) lifting the mood and (3) increasing self-esteem. If we consider that one of the main causes of stress is a perception or belief that we can't cope then exercise has the three ingredients that make us more confident and positive in our ability to cope. However, in the workplace little is done to include exercise as a means to combat stress and increase output. As a manger there are simple ways to include exercise in your teamwork. Use the stairs when walking to and from meetings with your employees and encourage them to make a habit of doing so at all times. Instead of sitting down for your update one on one meetings or reviews, go for a walk while you talk. Encourage working smart and reward good performance with "time off " to exercise. From a business perspective we may feel that most of this is common sense. However our employees remain stressed, many fail to perform at their maximum and have periods of lack of concentration or lethargy. A proactive energy strategy built into your leadership development or performance management systems will have a noticeable impact.Awareness and knowledge does not translate into active results without the behavioural tools and skills that create good habits and positive practice. Any Energy Management Programme can include behavioural skills training and process strategy to cover:

* Goal setting
* Strength building
* Motivation
* Reward
* Meeting and time management
* Powerful delegation
* Diet/exercise and sleep
* Stress management
* Mentoring and leadership by example.

Concluding thoughts

If we are smart in our use of energy we can achieve more in all the different areas of our lives both at work and at home. Maximising energy requires an understanding of our own drivers, our passions and motivations and our underlying natural cycles. If we learn to pace ourselves, balance our personal give and take, learn how to take breaks and capitalise on our high times we can and will be high performers in all areas of our lives. Natalie Dagnall is a qualified lawyer and runs an employment training and advisory consultancy called Lifewize, which specialises in: stress and energy initiatives, diversity, leadership and performance management and coaching.

Natalie has worked with both corporate and government and across a range of sectors including Banking, Mobile and Internet Technologies, Merchandising, Insurance, Professional Services, Transport and Mining. The services range from Strategic development, advice and project management to coaching, training and facilitation.

Prior to running Lifewize she has undertaken roles as a Senior Consultant in Aon Consulting, HR Services, and Employment Risk Services and a Director of Strategy and Marketing for Aon Consulting, Finsbury Healthcare. Natalie was also a Director of her own South African, Human Resources and Legal Advisory business. Prior to this she was a Partner with Leppan Beech Attorneys, South Africa, and Commissioner (Presiding Officer) on the South African CCMA (Employment tribunal) where she conducted arbitration, mediations and wage negotiations.

Natalie holds a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, a Diploma in Industrial Relations from Wits Business School, is currently completing her Certificate in Life Coaching from Newcastle College, UK and has been a guest lecturer and speaker at numerous universities and conferences.