At our very core, human beings are complex energy systems seeking equilibrium between energy expenditure — stress — and energy renewal — recovery. Everything we do at work and at home evokes stress and demands recovery. This continuous cycle is directly linked to an individual’s health and happiness, and when imbalance occurs, the resultant symptoms — fatigue, boredom, low motivation, irritability and burnout — can create a particularly challenging work environment.
The Human Performance Institute Inc. (HPI), part of Johnson & Johnson’s wellness and prevention business, defines the natural cycle of stress and recovery as oscillation. Optimal health is evidenced in the balanced, rhythmic interactions between cycles of energy expenditure and renewal, and dysfunction occurs with the failure to oscillate — either too much stress without sufficient recovery or too much recovery without stress.
Given today’s precarious corporate and economic climates, most professionals are working in some state of imbalance. In a poll of 70,000 individuals who completed the Human Performance Institute’s online engagement profile since March 2003, the average respondent indicated that he or she only achieves about 50 percent of the optimal recovery score on sleep, rest and mental recovery.
Rooted in more than 30 years of research and training with elite performers and professional athletes, the teachings at HPI are grounded in sports science. As with athletic overtraining, overexertion in the workplace can have physical, emotional and mental consequences. In studying athletic recovery, we can apply lessons learned to the high-stress world of business and increase workplace value by employing techniques to keep employees physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond their immediate self-interest.
A critical component to managing stress is managing energy. Think of managing energy like managing a bank account. One avoids trouble by ensuring withdrawals — stress — do not exceed deposits — recovery. Being a big spender in life requires making equally big deposits. Similar to the financial world, spending money — energy out — comes pretty naturally, but making deposits — energy in — is far more challenging.
To avoid overtraining and burnout, Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen kept a stress/recovery log every day for two years prior to his Olympic victory in 1994. The log was his energy management checkbook, which recorded his energy withdrawals and energy deposits on a daily basis. According to Jansen and his results at Lillehammer, Norway, where he won the gold, managing his energy checkbook daily paid big dividends. Applying this technique to the workplace, employers could win big in terms of morale, productivity and employee loyalty.
The most common sign of physical recovery is the feeling of bodily relief associated with food intake, hydration, movement, sleep or rest. Emotional recovery is typically evidenced in the movement away from negative feelings, such as fear, anger, guilt and remorse toward positive feelings such as gratitude, compassion, joy and confidence. Any activity or practice that stimulates positive emotionality has emotional recovery value. Examples might include writing a gratitude list, listening to inspirational music that stirs positive emotions, going on a family outing or reconnecting with close friends.
Mental recovery is associated with increased feelings of calmness, mental freshness, mental clarity and creativity. Activities such as meditation, yoga, visualization and deep breathing can have significant mental recovery value. Spiritual recovery typically occurs in activities that help us to reconnect to a sense of purpose. Activities might include acts of kindness, special readings, prayer or donating your time and financial resources to needy causes. All of these can serve as strategic distractions from activities that are highly strenuous or require maximum focus, including daily job requirements or high-profile work projects, and allow employees to recover, maintain energy levels and ultimately achieve maximum business results.
Despite the common perception, stress, defined as energy expenditure, is actually required to achieve optimal health. Stress stimulates growth in capacity, and the hormones released during cycles of energy expenditure actually perpetuate healthy adaptation. But good health requires stress/recovery balance. Balance is at the core of sustained high performance.
Jim Loehr is co-founder of the Human Performance Institute and author of 15 books, including The Power of Story. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.