The Human Energy Crisis

To boost organizational performance, pay attention to how employees create and manage energy. Learning and innovation will benefit as a result.

There’s an energy crisis facing our organizations. But this crisis can’t be solved by switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs or simply turning up the air conditioning a degree or two. This crisis goes deep into the core of our personal and professional habits, and the resulting fatigue is putting all of us at risk.

“When [individuals and organizations] struggle for energy, they struggle to have life, and if you’re unable to generate the energy that is necessary to meet those demands, some ball is going to drop,” said Jim Loehr, chairman and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute and author of 15 books, including The Power of Full Engagement.

Think of the nurse at the end of a 12-hour shift who faces an emergency situation that requires rapid diagnosis and makes a careless mistake, or the air-traffic controller who nods off while monitoring incoming flights. Physical fatigue creates a risk that directly affects our safety and well-being.

Fatigue also has implications beyond our ability to physically perform on the job. It makes it difficult to connect with and care about others and leads us to be more impatient and detached. It diminishes our ability to focus, be creative and develop innovative and original ideas. It even plays a role in ethical lapses.

“When people are tired [and] they’re in an energy crisis, they don’t hold the line like they should,” Loehr said. “They’re much more easily coerced — maybe just a little or maybe a lot — to the dark side.”

Based on research with high-performing athletes, Loehr and colleagues at the Human Performance Institute have developed recommendations for delivering high performance in the business world. It starts with recognition that human energy, or the lack thereof, has far-reaching implications.

“Take energy out of the equation in business [and] nothing happens,” he said. “Nothing happens until your energy causes something to move.”

While organizations have a number of often expensive programs and incentives aimed at developing technical and leadership skills, they pay comparatively little attention to employees’ energy and health, usually leaving it up to the individual to manage in their personal time. That approach focuses too heavily on the demands made by the organization and too little on how energy is supplied by the individual, with potentially debilitating results.

“We know what we want to spend our energy on but we don’t look to how we renew energy,” Loehr said. “As soon as energy is reduced in any significant way, learning comes to a complete stop, engagement begins to fall immediately. You don’t have the discretionary effort to put into the job or mission or task, and it places into jeopardy all the things we want to accomplish.”

Energy has never been viewed as a resource that needs to be managed in the same concentrated, coordinated way that we manage any other corporate resource, Loehr said. That lack of focus has resulted in a relatively unsophisticated approach that often confuses effort with energy.

“Effort simply refers to the volume of energy, the quantity that you have to spend,” Loehr said. “But you can spend large quantities of energy that’s very scattered, unfocused [and] has very poor quality in the sense that it’s negative and sarcastic.”

To tackle the energy crisis, organizations need to begin with the fundamental understanding that energy operates in an oscillatory fashion, meaning people continually expend and recover energy. Without some infusion of energy and time to recover, it quickly becomes unsustainable.

CLOs can play a role by including personal and organizational energy management in leadership development programs. Beyond training to develop rituals that generate energy, such as getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, CLOs can help leaders learn how to apply and focus individual and organizational energy. People can be trained to be more positive with their energy, strengthen their focus and boost engagement, Loehr said.

Some organizations, such as hospitals and the military are actively managing energy because there are direct consequences to failure to do so. The broader business world is just beginning to get it, looking up from the bottom line just in time to see the energy crisis looming.

“We have never really viewed this as being central to the bottom line and it really is,” Loehr said. “The only thing that makes everything happen is your energy, and when your energy is no longer available, all that brilliance is stalled.”

Mike Prokopeak is editorial director at Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at