Avoiding burnout: 4 considerations for a more energetic organization

Being open requires a certain kind of energy—and if you don't take time to replenish that energy, your organization will suffer.
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In both personal and organizational life, energy levels are important. This is no less true of open organizations. Consider this: When you're tired, you'll have trouble adapting when challenges arise. When your energy is low, you'll have trouble collaborating with others. When you're feeling fatigued, building and energizing an open organization community is difficult.

At a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently formalized its definition for burnout, this issue seems more important than ever. In this article, I'll address the important issue of managing daily energy—both at the personal and organizational levels.

Energy management

Having spent most of my career in overseas sales and sales training, I've learned that both individual and company energy levels are very important. In the early part of the career, I was traveling approximately every two months. Most trips were two to four weeks long. When teaching during those trips, I'd find myself standing six hours every day as I presented selling techniques to salespeople. It was exhausting.

But I loved the work, and I knew I had to do something to keep my energy up. At a physical level, I knew I had to strengthen my legs and my heart, as well as change my diet to be able to sleep deeper at odd times of the day. Interestingly, I was not alone, as I heard many jet lag and exhaustion complaints in airport business lounges regularly. But I had to think about energy at an emotional level, too. I knew that the outside retail sales people I was training had to take rejection every day; they had to be able to control their levels of emotion and energy to be productive.

Whether for companies or individuals, exhaustion is counter-productive, resulting in errors, frustration, and poor performance. This could be even more true in open organizations, as many participants are contributing for a wide range of reasons outside of basic monetary rewards. Many organizations emphasize time-management, stress-management, crisis-management, and resource-management—but I've never heard of a company that has adopted and introduced an "energy management" program.

Why not?

In my case, in order to keep both myself and the sales people I was training energized and productive, I had to address the issue of energy. So I started studying and reading about the subject. Eventually I found the book The Way We're Working Isn't Working by Tony Schwartz, and still consider it the most helpful. Schwartz went on to develop The Energy Project,"a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations grow and transform so together they can prosper, add more value in the world, and do less harm." It addresses this issue of fatigue head on.

Schwartz distinguishes four separate and distinct categories of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Let me explain each and add some comments along the way.

Four categories of energy

Physical health

First, to have adequate energy every day, you've got to take care of your physical health. That means you must address issues like nutrition, posture, sleep, and exercise (I found the book Farewell to Fatigue by Donald Norfolk especially helpful for learning how to get over jet lag quickly.) To use an automotive term: You should always have a good "power to weight ratio." In other words, you must increase the driveline power/efficiency or reduce the overall weight of the vehicle to improve performance.

I decided to work on both, keeping my legs strong and my weight down. I started jogging four to five times per week and improved my diet, which really helped me get a lot more out of my days and reduce fatigue.

Emotional well-being

Our energy grows when we feel appreciated by others. When the environment is exciting, we are motivated—which also leads to added energy. Conversely, when we don't feel that others appreciate us—or we find ourselves in a dull, even toxic environment—our energy levels suffer. In Every Word Has Power, author Yvonne Oswald writes that the words we use and hear can make a big difference to our energy levels and well-being. She writes that simply reframing our everyday speech can help us boost energy levels. Instead of speaking excessively with the word "not" ("Don't strike out," "Don't double-fault,"), we should form sentences that paint a positive (energy-creating) image or picture in our minds. ("Hit a home run," "Serve an ace"). The former statements consume our energy; the latter enhance it.

Regarding energy generation in a working environment, the book The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile taught me an important insight. Amabile's research shows that generating a feeling of upward progress is the most powerful way to increase energy in an organization. A feeling of progress, learning, developing, and moving upward is extremely important. The opposite is true for declining organizations. I've consulted a lot of companies over the years, and when I'm seeking to get a feeling for an organization's energy level, all I have to do is ask one question: "What is your company's project or product development program and its future prospects?" If I can't get a clear, detailed answer to that question throughout the organization, I know that people are just biding their time and aren't energized.

Mental clarity

Our minds consume more energy than any other part of our body, just like computers that consume a lot of electricity. That is why we're so tired after studying for many hours or taking long tests. We didn't move around much, but we're tired just the same because we consumed energy through concentration and mental activity. When our mental energy is low, our ability to focus intensely, prioritize, and think creatively suffer. We therefore must know when to relax and re-energize our brains.

Whether for companies or individuals, exhaustion is counter-productive, resulting in errors, frustration, and poor performance. This could be even more true in open organizations, as many participants are contributing for a wide range of reasons outside of basic monetary rewards.

Additionally, consider mental energy and the concept of "multi-tasking." Some people proudly report that they're good at multi-tasking—but they shouldn't be, as it wastes mental energy. I am not saying we shouldn't listen to music while driving the car, but when it comes to cognitive mental processing, we can only do one thing at a time. The concept of "multi-tasking" is actually a misnomer in the context of deep thinking. Human brains process information sequentially (one issue at a time). We simply cannot conduct two thinking tasks at the same time. Instead, what we're really doing is task "switching," a back-and-forth movement between tasks that has a significant mental energy cost for the value gained. First and foremost, it is less efficient. Also, it consumes a great deal of energy. Best is to start a task and completely finish it before moving on to the next task, reducing shut-down and recall waste.

Just like overworking a muscle, mental clarity, strength, and energy can be used up. Therefore, mental recovery is important. Many people have found “power naps” or meditating extremely helpful. Going into a relax mode for only 20 minutes can be very helpful. It is just enough time to build your mental energy, but not long enough to make you groggy.

Spiritual significance

Spiritual significance creates energy, and it comes from the feeling of serving a mission beyond financial rewards. Put simply, it is doing something we consider important (an internal desire or goal). In the case of my sales training career, for example, I had a purpose of building the careers of salespeople who had very little formal education. Teaching in countless developing countries really offered an inspiring purpose for me. At that time, this dimension of my work provided "spiritual significance". It generated a great deal of energy in me. As I grow older, I'm finding this spiritual significance becoming extremely important while financial rewards start to weaken. I'm sure this is true for many people that are contributing to open organizations. This contribution is where their energy comes from.

Not just for me, not just for open organization, but for people in general, I've found these four types of energy very important—so much so that I've prepared and delivered presentations on them.

Energy across four zones

In The Way We're Working Isn't Working, Tony Schwartz mentions four zones that people operate in, which I've diagrammed in Figure 1.

Courtesy of Ron McFarland (CC BY-SA)

Figure 1 (Adapted from The Way We're Working Isn't Working, page 123)

Courtesy of Ron McFarland (CC BY-SA)

Here we see four quadrants useful in evaluating a working environment. From left to right we see an assessment of the environment, with a negative environment (energy-consuming) on the left and a positive environment (energizing) on the right. From top to bottom, then, is an assessment of the organization's (or individual's) energy level. Obviously, you want to be in the upper-right zone as much as possible and out of the bottom-left zone as much as possible.

To move from the Survival Zone (left) to the Performance Zone (right), Schwartz suggests you can manage your attitude by looking through three "lenses":

  • Reflection lens. Ask two very simple questions: 1. What are the facts? and 2. What assumptions am I making? Stand back, observe the environment, and give yourself a chance to consider other, more positive ways of thinking about the situation.
  • Reverse lens. How do you think other people (particularly the person creating the negative environment) feel about the situation? Try to find ways to see or feel that person's perspective.
  • Long lens. Even after learning and confirming the facts and considering other people's perspectives, if you still feel like you're in the Survival Zone or Burnout Zone, consider the future. Imagine how you can make the best of a bad situation and move above it. No matter how badly you feel right now, how can you learn from this experience and excel in the future? Try to see value in the experience.

Do yourself a favor when you wake up in the morning. Evaluate yourself on the four energy types I mentioned in this article. Rate yourself from 1 to 10 on your current "morning physical health energy level." Then, do the same thing for your "emotional well-being energy level," "mental clarity energy level" and "spiritual significance energy level." That will give you some idea of what you'll have to work on to get the most out of both your day and life.

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Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent more than 30 of them in international sales, sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. He's worked in or been to more than 80 countries.


I consider this a very important subject. Thanks for share!

I find this subject very interesting, but... reflecting upon it, isn't quite tragic that such measures has to be taken to be able to do your daily work? We need to reach a work load and corporate culture where people doesn't have to be as prepared as this article suggests. First you have to do your job and then spend hours to be able to be fit enough to work. Don't get me wrong, I totally agree to the fact that we should take care of ourselves mentally and physically, but that should be due to the fact that we should be healthy and feel well as individuals, not primarily that we should perform at work.

You are raising an important point. Actually, I wrote the article with "mental energy burnout" in mind, particularly computer programmers. They are thinking all the time and don't get the mental rest and relaxation they need. You are right. There should be a balance work, play and relaxing. I didn't mention it in the article, but in the book The Way We're Working Isn't Working by Tony Schwartz, he recommends taking naps and relaxing more at the office. The office culture must be more open to this.

In reply to by Jokre (not verified)

Thanks, I will look further into that book. I'm not criticising the article really, I think it was good and informative and I will for sure use it at work to start (or continue actually) the ongoing and perpetual discussion about not wearing out individuals, or even worse, key individuals or make them leave the organisation which is a true loss for everyone involved.

In reply to by Ron McFarland

Thanks for the in-depth look on energy levels Ron. As I get older I feel energised at more times than others and I'm starting to look at what's happening at those different times that might be having a positive or negative impact on my energy levels. This article gives me a few new perspectives to consider when I do that reflection.

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