Energy, or “the ability to do work,” is an essential resource for healthy workplaces. By no coincidence, many attributes within the workplace are assigned energetic nomenclature. Burnout, connectivity, production, transformation, power, even vibe—all these terms refer to energetic forms of movement. Even the universal symbol for a great idea, the lightbulb, circles back to energy.
Renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr noted that all matter and living things are made up simply of whirling energy at the subatomic level. Einstein described life as a series of vibrations. Erwin Schrödinger once said that everything is made up of waves. And any manager would tell you that they want to see energy and enthusiasm from their team members.
Energy is thought of as a driving force and an important core attribute for team members, typically displayed in the forms of enthusiasm and engagement. Sometimes, this means people feel they are expected to display or fake energy even when they don’t genuinely have it, despite challenging life circumstances or in favor of team momentum.
This definition of energy risks crowding out real human experiences and compounding the sense of burnout many workers face. Many are struggling to recharge, especially after two years of a global pandemic and economic challenges that refuse to abate. A positive vibe can also be drained by a work culture that demands complete surrender to its rigid, overworked conditions.
Some might absorb all these reflections and feel powerless against the onslaught of change, uncertainty and disruption. Pay can be raised, but only by so much. Unlimited time off, at least in the literal sense of the word, isn’t an option. Team members must produce or perform, or it can serve as a drag on operations.
But we know what motivates people. The psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good starting point, based on extensive and proven research. Human beings, Maslow posited, have a series of needs beyond just physiological requirements like food, warmth and shelter. They need to feel belonging, intimacy and safety in their relationships, as well. They also have the need to feel purpose and perceive an affiliation with something bigger than themselves.
In troubled times, people tend to revert to the satisfaction of their most basic needs, so they have less capacity for creative thinking and challenging cognitive achievements. This was widely acknowledged and recognized during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet workers who are still exhausted, or those who seem plainly disengaged, may be experiencing something quite similar. In fact, experts tell us that pandemic-related PTSD could be more serious than a one-time traumatic event because there is no clear ending.
Purpose can power energy, but it must be relatable, clear and aligned with authentic values. Otherwise, workers will see through the ruse and disconnect. A sense of purpose also helps morale and productivity by allowing individual team members to explore their personal job interests or have extra time to indulge the areas of their roles where they really shine.
I believe what we’re seeing—in terms of imbalance and burnout caused by the pace of change and other factors in the workplace—is directly related to the fact that people have been hovering in the deficit tiers on Maslow’s hierarchy. Consider purpose, in a way, to be a “deficiency need.” If someone’s basic deficiency needs are not met, it’s highly unlikely that their growth needs will even be a factor in their daily existence.
As a result, organizations must view deficiency needs as “table stakes.” Until workers achieve them, concepts falling into the growth needs category, such as innovation, design and purpose, will remain abstract and elusive. Ask yourself the following questions as a leader.
1. How do you typically respond to the perception of low or limited energy?
Is your instinct to become frustrated? It’s understandable, in such a fast-paced and competitive world, to feel little patience for a team member who seems to be disinterested or disengaged. But remember that you brought them on for a reason. There is likely a reason things have changed, as well as a place where you can step in and identify where they need added support.
2. What does your team say they need?
Remember not to be so afraid of the answers that you don’t even ask the question. Some managers might worry that if they open the floor, they’ll be overwhelmed with requests for PTO or raises—ones they want to fulfill but cannot due to the pressures the business is facing. Sometimes this is the answer to organizational problems, but you may be surprised to discover that what people are really seeking is someone to listen and care.
3. What are the obstacles in the way of fulfilling those needs?
If it’s something as straightforward as a team member who wants to be reassigned to a new project, or who needs more time to focus on a skill area they’re passionate about, it’s almost always possible to make that work. If it’s something complex, then making a genuine effort to listen and show empathy will at least show you resonate with their needs.
It’s not common practice to think of people as energetic beings, especially in professional settings. It can seem too New Age or futuristic to do so. But remember, the simplicity of this perspective is fully backed by scientific principles that provide a basis for understanding the imbalance people are feeling today.
Energy is at the core of all our modern workplace ills. When energy is zapped, it requires a charge to reboot. A leader’s job is to recognize that without a strong baseline vibe that resonates with employees, the team cannot be expected to perform at creative and strategic levels. They’re merely trying to get a temporary spark out of a dead battery, and that simply will not work long-term. The battery needs a jump, as does our workforce.