The four types of energy

When we think about our energy, we tend to focus only on physical energy. However, there are four sources that contribute to our overall energy levels.

Physical energy

In the 17th century, the philosopher Rene Descartes argued that the mind and body are distinct and separable (Russell, 1945). This view persists, and it is not overly helpful in understanding burnout, which is still viewed by many as a ‘mental’ problem that is solved through an intellectual answer, such as a talking therapy. However, the experience of burnout is both physical and mental. It does include mental aspects, such as cynicism, but the factors that overwhelmingly dominate the experience of burnout are physical ones. People suffering burnout feel exhausted, anxious and detached from life. All of these are embodied physical experiences that represent a decrease in physical energy.

One of the problems with burnout is that it easily becomes a vicious circle of physical exhaustion. You work long hours and get tired. Your concentration decreases and it takes you longer to complete a given task. Therefore, in order to complete your work, you have to work even longer hours - and so it goes on.

Emotional energy

If you feel fed up, unappreciated or constantly stressed and worried, your emotional energy levels will be low and your work performance is likely to be correspondingly low. Our emotional energy is pretty much determined by the quality of our relationships. It’s difficult to focus on anything or get things done if your workplace is negative and dominated by office politics.

According to research, even witnessing incivility at work upsets most people and significantly impairs performance. Psychologists Christine Po-rath and Amir Erez devised an experiment where one group of participants witnessed rudeness, another group actually experienced being treated rudely and a third group encountered no rudeness at all. The groups were then asked to complete problem-solving and creativity tasks. The group who had been treated rudely found it hard to focus on the tasks and their performance plummeted. Compared to the group who hadn’t encountered any rudeness, their problem-solving ability was 61 per cent worse and they produced less than half as many ideas in the creativity test. In the group who just witnessed rudeness, their problem solving was 33 per cent worse and they came up with 39 per cent fewer creative ideas. The psychologists also found that when people encounter incivility, they are far less inclined to help others. They found that 73 per cent of those who hadn’t experienced rudeness would volunteer to help someone, but this fell to only 24 per cent in those who had been treated rudely (Porath & Erez, 2007).

For our emotional energy levels to recharge, we need to work in an environment where we feel respected, appreciated and valued. There is a lot of research in the field of positive psychology that shows how you can do this (Lopez & Snyder, 2011).

Mental energy

This is our ability to focus and concentrate - in other words, our cognitive ability or ability to think. Some work environments support our ability to think, while others disable it. If you’re a leader or a manager, you essentially get paid to think. But in many work environments it is very difficult to think clearly. There are so many interruptions in modern open-plan offices, including emails, phone calls and colleagues wanting to talk. The American academic Cal Newport has talked about how the rise of modern technology in the office has sabotaged our ability to concentrate. In his book Deep Work (Newport, 2016) he describes work as being either deep or shallow.

Deep work is made up of professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive abilities to their limit. Deep work is valuable, it doesn’t happen that much in the modern world and it is meaningful. This is similar to the positive psychology idea of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in the task and feels energised and focused. Flow happens when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing. It is very difficult to get into this mindset in most workplaces.

In contrast, shallow work is made up of repetitive, non-demanding tasks that a person can perform easily even when distracted. This work doesn’t add much value and is easy to replicate.

Newport argues that years of exposure to shallow work and distractions have a long-lasting, negative impact on our ability to concentrate and focus our attention for more than short periods of time. He talks about how influential and very productive people, such as Carl Jung, Woody Allen and Bill Gates, have removed themselves from distractions in order to produce their enormous and extraordinary body of work. If you are a leader or manager, much of your time at work should be used to engage in work. Unfortunately, the work environment often gets in the way of this.


When Gerry Robinson joined Granada as CEO, it posted a pre-tax loss of ¿no million. He turned this around to a profit of/735 million. Robinson attributed his business success to being able to carve out time and space to think, away from the noisy office where you are constantly interrupted. He said:

Even when I was in full-time employment it was pretty rare for me to be there on Friday afternoons. Unless there was a takeover or something going on, I would switch off completely, particularly if I could absorb myself in one of my hobbies such as painting or playing golf. And always leave firm instructions not to be disturbed.

(Robinson, 2004)

Existential (or spiritual) energy

The greatest source of energy is having an awareness of the meaning and purpose of your job. It’s important to really understand why you do what you do and why your work is important and valuable (every job has meaning and dignity). If you feel that what you do is meaningless for you, then every day is going to be a struggle.

There is an old story about three stonemasons in 10'h-century Paris. Each of them is asked what they are doing. The first replies that they are carving stone to make a living. The second stonemason talks about the pride he takes in carving beautiful ornamental stonework. The third looks up and says that he is building a cathedral to the glory of God. This story is a bit cliched, but it makes a good point. The codebreakers at Bletchley Park worked long hours without complaint, because they knew that their work saved lives. If you believe, like the third stonemason or the Bletchley Park codebreakers, that your work has real meaning, then you’re far less likely to suffer burnout.


On an autumn day in September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was arrested in Vienna along with his wife and his parents and transported to Auschwitz. By 1945 his family, including his wife, had perished. Frankl managed somehow to survive. The following year he wrote one of the most profound books to be written about the Holocaust and the human condition, Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1962). Frankl concluded that the overwhelming difference between those who survived the death camps and those who did not was the person's ability to find meaning and purpose in even the most hopeless circumstances. He wrote:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way... Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force of man.

Frankl’s idea about actively choosing one’s attitude to a bad situation is an important one. Doing this helps to remove the sense of meaninglessness that contributes to burnout. It is easy to complain and whine about work, but that usually does not help. If you are doing a meaningful job, remember what that meaning is. If you can’t find any meaning in your job, remember why you are doing it - perhaps to provide for your family, or to earn money to allow you to do other, more pleasant and interesting things in your life. Focusing on the meaning of your job, why you do it, really will help you to feel better about a poor situation.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >