How you can increase the energy in your team and decrease the risk of burnout

Here are some suggestions about how you can increase the energy levels in your team:

Increasing physical energy

This is the easiest, most straightforward and probably most obvious way of improving energy in the team. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Boundaries: have clear boundaries at work. For example, do your best to enforce start and finish times. Discourage people from coming into the office too early or working late.
  • Regular breaks: encourage those you manage to take their allocated breaks. Make sure they have their lunch and coffee/tea breaks. Of course, one of the best ways to do this is by setting an example and taking breaks yourself.
  • Physical activity: start a lunchtime physical activity group. For example, you could organise a walking group to go for a brisk half-hour walk.
  • Exercise: if you have the resources and authority, set up a workplace gym. If that isn’t possible, perhaps you could provide a subsidised company gym membership scheme.
  • Nutrition: evaluate the food on sale in the staff restaurant. Do you have healthy, nutritious options?
  • Home working: would some of your staff prefer to work from home for part of the working week?

Increasing emotional energy

The American psychologist Dr John Gottman is probably the world’s leading expert on marriage and relationships. After spending 15 minutes with you and your partner, Gottman is able to predict, with 94 per cent accuracy, whether your relationship will be happy and long-lasting, or end up on the rocks. To understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples, Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson carried out a number of longitudinal studies of married couples in the 1970s. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, and then sat back and watched. After carefully reviewing the tapes, they predicted which couples would stay together and which would divorce. Nine years later, they followed up with the couples and found their predictions were over 90 per cent accurate (Gottman & Levenson, 1992).

Gottman and Levenson’s discovery was simple. The difference between a happy and unhappy couple is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last (Gottman & Silver, 2018). That ‘magic ratio’ is 5-to-l. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions. On the other hand, unhappy couples engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity. If the positive to negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-l or less, that’s unhealthy, and indicates a couple teetering on the edge of divorce.

This is all very interesting, I hear you say, but what has it got to do with work and burnout? Well, the psychologists Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy wondered if this principle applied to work groups. They studied the performance (financial success, customer satisfaction ratings and 360-degree feedback ratings of team members) of 60 leadership teams at a large IT organisation.

Just like John Gottman with the married couples, they found that the factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive to negative comments that the managers made to one another. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was S.6. The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9. The average for the lowest-performing teams was only 0.36 to 1; in other words, almost three negative comments for every positive one (Losada & Heaphy, 2004). This is strong evidence that if you can increase the number of positive to negative interactions in your team, you will reduce the risk of stress and burnout, as well as improving productivity. Oh, and it will make for a nicer place to work.

To increase the emotional energy in your team, actively talk about ways in which you can improve your team’s positivity ratio. A great way of doing this is the ‘What Went Well’ exercise devised by Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement (Seligman, 2011). At the start of your next team meeting, set aside ten minutes and ask each member to talk about three things that went well over the previous week and why they went well. At first, you will probably find that people look at you blankly and say that they can’t remember anything good happening. This is normal, because we tend to have a negativity bias: we focus on the things that have gone wrong, and when things go well, we forget and move on to the next problem, letting our successes fly away like ashes scattered in the wind. If this happens, ask your team to get their diaries out and look back at the previous week. When you do this you will be amazed at how many successes there have been and the immediate uplift in mood when people start sharing them. On the whole, people love talking about their successes and the good things that have happened - they just need a bit of encouragement and a framework within which to do it.

Increasing cognitive energy

In order to increase people’s ability to think, focus on what’s important and get things done, you need to tell your team to build the following into how they work:

  • • Work in focused blocks of time (blocks of 90 minutes work well for me). In other words, if you have a piece of work to get done, sit down and focus on that work for this period. Switch off your email notifications, unplug your phone, and either close your office door or put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign. You will be amazed by how much you can achieve in 90 minutes.
  • • Between the 90-minute blocks of work, take regular short breaks to refresh and recharge your brain. Get up and go for a walk around, have a cup of coffee or at least have a stretch.
  • • Get some exercise during the working day. The brain uses massive amounts of oxygen, and simply having a brisk walk once or twice a day really oxygenates the brain and leads to improved cognitive performance (Mandolesi et al., 2018).

Increasing meaning

The most powerful way of increasing energy in a team and decreasing the risk of burnout is to help the people you lead or manage to reconnect with the meaning of their work.


Tony is a 46-year-old paediatrician. He is married and has an eight-year-old daughter called Sophie. Tony is a smart, affable, down-to-earth character - he’s the sort of doctor who wears a tweed jacket in preference to a dark-blue suit. Until recently, he would have described himself as being tough-minded; he has to be, given the nature of his work. But then came the night his wife came downstairs to find Tony sitting at the kitchen table and sobbing uncontrollably. Next to him was an empty bottle of wine and his laptop, open on a report which told the story of the mistreatment of an eight-year-old child. His life at work had become a blur of meetings, reading and writing reports, and doing his best tosupport unhappy colleagues. He would see patients, but once he’d carried out an assessment, more junior staff would provide the hands-on treatment. He had become a doctor to help people, but now felt he was just a small cog in the big machine of NHS bureaucracy. Tony was finding it hard to see the meaning of his work anymore.

For all its stress, long hours and poor pay, the one thing that medicine, especially paediatrics, doesn’t lack is meaning. Unfortunately, the form-filling, box-ticking bureaucracy of the NHS often puts a barrier between the practitioner and the meaning inherent in the work. In 2018, some colleagues and I were asked to develop a programme to strengthen resilience in medical staff overseeing the safety of children and vulnerable adults. We developed a programme based on the work ofViktor Frankl, which I described earlier (Drayton et al., 2018). Tony’s work is difficult and nothing will take away the stress - but connecting with the meaning and importance ofthe role makes almost any amount of stress bearable.

The American organisational psychologist Adam Grant has spent his career studying meaning and motivation at work. Here are some of his evidence-based ideas for reconnecting people with the meaning of their work (Grant, 2011):

  • Create events where employees can meet customers or service users. A medical technology company has an annual party in which patients tell salespeople, engineers and technicians how the company’s products have transformed their lives. A hospital accident and emergency department organises an annual event at which trauma team members come face to face with people whose lives they saved.
  • Circulate stories that allow employees to learn about their customers’ experiences. The Volvo Saved My Life Club collects videos and letters from drivers whose lives were saved by the company’s safety designs.
  • Invite employees to share their own stories. A bank branch starts weekly team meetings with employees describing memorable instances of helping customers.
  • Turn employees into customers. A luxury hotel chain invites housekeepers and hotel staff to spend a night in their own hotel.

The problem Tony and so many other people have is that they become caught up in the day-to-day hassles and trivialities of work and forget the real meaning of what they do. We all strive to live a meaningful life and most of us spend a lot of our time at work. Finding or creating meaning at work really helps to avoid burnout.

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