Happy woman

Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project, an organizational consulting firm, and author of  “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” says that managing energy is the most fundamental – and important – human behavior. We need to both spend and recover energy. But in our global, always on, plugged-in and supercharged world of long work hours, he argues we’re way overspending our energy, and giving short shrift to renewing it. As a result, we’re not only exhausted, drained and unhealthy, but we’re not doing our best work, nor living our best lives.  He explains:

Q: Not long ago, you wrote an editorial that went viral, titled, “Why You Hate Work.” Why do we hate work?

Schwartz: What’s to like? For most people, work is requiring too many of their waking hours doing things that feel like they have too little meaning, and that aren’t all that enjoyable. Most people have a very difficult experience at work, whether it’s a person on a shop floor or a middle-level, well-paid manager, or a leader.

That essay was actually built around research we did with the Harvard Business Review in which we asked a whole series of questions of about 20,000 workers about their basic needs and whether they were being met.

They identified their core needs as:

  • The opportunity to move between work and rest
  • To feel emotionally valued
  • Mentally, to have the opportunity for focused work and self-expression
  • And spiritually, to feel that what they did felt purposeful or meaningful

And a large percentage of the people we studied felt that not one of their core needs was met by their current employer. Not one. Conversely, each time an additional need was met, the positive impact on every variable of performance we studied – engagement, focus, likelihood of retention, life satisfaction – went up in a straight line.

Q: Why does that matter?

Schwartz: We’ve found that employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one break during the day. They’re also 50 percent more able to think creatively and have a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.

Employees who feel they have a supportive supervisor are 1.3 times as likely to stay with an organization and are 67 percent more engaged.

And people who found meaning and significance in their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations.

It’s not only an argument about what happens when you treat people more humanely, but a clear indication that the better you treat people, the better they perform.

[Related: Your sweet spot: How to become more productive while actually working less]

Q: Has it always been like this? Have we always hated work?

Schwartz: Truthfully, we’ve only been studying the subject of job satisfaction for two or three decades. But intuition tells you, yes, work has always been like this. Work has always been something most people had to do to live. The way you measured the enjoyment in your life was by what you did outside of work.

But, in recent years, there’s been a change in the intensity of demands at work that people face in a world that has speeded up. Stress researchers talk about the concept of allostatic load, when you’re at your maximum carrying capacity. So often, we just keep going until you hit your breaking point and somebody drops over from a heart attack.

Q: Why has the overload accelerated so much in recent years?

Schwartz: Technology. By the nature of digital technology, we are able to be connected all the time, and by virtue of the incredibly powerful and addictive pull of that technology, we end up being connected even if we don’t have to be.

[Related: A six-step program for breaking your smartphone addiction]

Q: So what can readers do to ease overload and get more of their core needs met at work?

Schwartz:

1. Get enough sleep: The two dominant worker issues in companies today are fatigue and fear, and they’re very interconnected. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. Vulnerability is higher when you’re fatigued. Fatigue and fear are really insidious. And they have a huge negative impact on people’s productivity.

If you don’t get enough sleep, which means for 97.5 percent of all human beings, at least 7 hours a night, then everything else suffers. How you feel suffers. How well you can focus suffers. How committed you feel to what you’re doing suffers.

2. Take regular breaks: One of the things that the Energy Project does most effectively with individuals and companies is to give them permission and sanction for doing something that the culture doesn’t allow them to do, namely, to take time off, whether it’s a minute, 15 minutes, a weekend or a vacation, and not feel that they’re somehow slacking or falling short.

At the most simple practical level, what people can do is recognize that the more continuously they work across the day, the less effective they become with every increasing hour.

3. Breathe: If you breathe in deeply, to a count of three, and out through your mouth to the count of six, there’s good research that shows that clears the blood of cortisol, which is the most insidious of the stress hormones.

You’re effectively moving yourself from a fight or flight state to one of being more in control.

So, even something as little as that, done intermittently throughout the day, is a gift to you and your productivity, and something no boss will ever scold you for, ‘Hey, I caught you breathing again!’ Probably not going to happen.

[Related: Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain]

4. Un-imprison yourself, at least a little, from technology: And here I’m speaking from my own experience, as difficult as it is to take long chunks of time away from digital media, in particular, away from email – the single most valuable ritual I’ve had over the last 15 years is to do the most important thing first, without interruption for at least an hour, and then take a break.

When you frame a limited time, with a beginning and an end, I have found it becomes possible to give up the interruption, the distraction of incoming information for at least that time. And in so doing, you get more done during that hour, and more substantive, better quality work, than you often will through the whole rest of the day when you’re constantly moving from one thing to another.

What I like about all of this, is that they’re within most people’s control. It’s a choice.

Q: What about you? Do you work in a way that meets your core needs?

I do. I didn’t used to. But I changed because I wasn’t happy. I just felt I was somebody who spent my life trying to achieve, because I thought somehow if I achieved enough, I’d finally feel good about myself.

I had the good fortune to discover that even a lot of achievement did not leave me feeling happy or at peace with myself. Work is just one more addiction when you do it to excess.

For me, I just woke up very specifically one day, when I stepped out of my car in the driveway when I couldn’t get a cell signal at 9:30 at night to take a work call. I failed to notice I left the car in neutral on an incline, then had to start chasing the car through our garden into a stone wall.

That was a really transformative day. I literally hit the wall.

So I started just working with this simple idea of time on, and time off, and valuing them both. The transformation of my own life was so dramatic, that it was self reinforcing. To this day, I’m struggling to keep that dynamic kind of balance between work and rest – it’s the key to everything else working in my life.

I do the most important thing first. I stop for lunch. I take at least one significant break in the morning and one in the afternoon. I minimize or avoid work on weekends. I appreciate other people – I have a mantra, ‘ Be kind for everyone’s fighting a difficult battle.’

I’ve built many routines into my day to keep from being overwhelmed by urgent matters. They’re designed to support a good life.

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