Here is the “recharging energy” section of a collaborative mental health venture “Rethink/Recharge” talk given for the 2018 Australasian Turf Grass Association Conference. While I covered off the “rethinking mental health” portion of our presentation, this section was tackled by my friend and Ancestral Health Colleague Jamie Scott (Nutritionist with several other strings to his bow). Jamie discusses the broad concept of recharging energy and make the case for a cultural shift to prioritise this concept over simply throwing more time (in an energy depleted state) at the daily challenges humans face - and how this relates to mental health. Over to Jamie!
The Way We Are Working Isn’t Working
We live in an age and under an economic model where, irrespective of the industry or sector, demands (productivity, outputs, expectations) continue increase at a time when capacity (staff, budgets) continues to erode. We all live in a world where we expect more for less. This ongoing tension between demands and capacity is a primary source of both acute and chronic stress in the workplace.
Most people view their core capacities as knowledge (an understanding of the problems at hand and how to solve them), and time. Knowledge and experience is built up over a long period, so, in an acute sense at least, we view time as our core capacity. This notion is reinforced by the fact that most people give their time in exchange for money.
Where and how we direct our time is most often driven by our intrinsic values. To value something is to place importance on it. The groundskeeper who values the sense of achievement and recognition from delivering a good product will dedicate more of their discretionary time to completing a task than the person who is perhaps indifferent to such values.
When demands increase we often respond by allocating more time to those demands. We work longer hours per day, and perhaps more days per week, as we attempt to meet the demands of the situation. If, however, one area of our life demands more time, so it goes that time must be taken from another area of our lives.
Time is fixed. Nobody can create more time capacity for themselves. As we attempt to balance all the time demands of our lives, be it work or family life, a sense of urgency is created. We begin to live our lives in a rush, and we operate under the notion that we don’t have time, that time is running out, and we are too busy for anything else beyond the demands of our most immediate focus.
The stress from living under a near constant sense of urgency is often compounded by the intrinsic values conflicts created from living a life dictated by the clock. For example, a groundskeeper may not just be a keeper of grounds. They might also be a husband, a father, a mentor, and a mate. They may have come into the profession for the enjoyment of working outside, or for a sense of being close to a sport they are passionate about. But they now find themselves spending more time indoors answering emails and undertaking extensive administrative duties due to budget cuts.
Such responsibilities draw them away from the very roles which fuelled their sense of fulfilment in their careers. It also takes time and focus away from their personal and family life, friendships, and other important connections. The man who prided himself on being both a good partner and groundskeeper, is no longer feeling like he is doing particularly well with either role, leading to a sense of frustration and relationship conflicts (where those relationships can be with partners, family, friends, and work colleagues).
To meet all the external demands being placed on such individuals, time which may have been allocated towards personal physical health behaviours is now diverted to dealing with the most urgent & pressing demands, e.g. less time is given toward sleeping, physical activity, and taking time out of the day to recharge energy with nutritious food.
Such demands of life rarely remain acute. Indeed, it is the hallmark of life in the modern world that living in a constant state of rush and urgency is the norm. Feeling distressed, anxious, frustrated, and defensive all while living in near constant survival (fight or flight) mode is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather it is the normal response to such a stressful environment.
Demands exceeding capacity, living life in urgency, feeling constantly busy, values conflicts, and the subsequent chronic stress leading to ever higher rates of poor mental health – clearly the way we are working isn’t working. We cannot keep operating in the same way and yet expect a different outcome. And we certainly cannot continue to frame a cultural and environmental problem as being one which rests on the shoulders of individuals to quietly deal with themselves.
But the revolution will have to wait for another day. More pressing for most individuals is how they can deal with the current situation as it is in the here and now; how they can change their world before focusing on how to change the world. It is my belief that this all begins with individuals shifting their operating paradigm from one based around the non-renewable capacity of time, to the renewable capacity of personal energy.
Energy is our key currency, not time, a fact I can illustrate with several examples. Imagine a couple who are on a dinner date with each other. A good date might be one where the couple are focused and attentive toward each other, where their emotional and mental energy is high. A poor date, however, is one where both are tired, distracted, and not engaged with each other. They might spend most of their time scrolling through their phone. The time spent with each other could be the same in both examples, but the energy and the outcome is totally different.
A young employee might turn up to work every day and put in the required number of hours on the job. But due to staying up late every night, drinking too much alcohol, and not eating enough nutrient-dense food, their physical energy levels are low. They put in the time but not a lot of work gets done in that time.
A business owner has been splitting his time between being on the job and in the office doing admin. They make the decision to focus solely on running the business rather than working in the business and they have now have more time on their hands. But doing paperwork and accounts give them no sense of fulfilment and they soon become deeply unhappy and unmotivated.
The above are examples of life that we often measure by time but where it is our energy which is ultimately more important. This energy comes in four broad forms:
Physical Energy - Your Foundation Energy
The energy we derive from quality sleep, eating well, and being physically fit and strong. We might understand this energy when the key elements are lacking, e.g. when we are under slept, have skipped meals or have eaten under nourishing food, or our fitness is low and everyday activities become more draining.
Prioritising sleep, preparing good meals and taking our time to eat them, and working on physical fitness are some of the first aspects of our lives we let slip when we feel under time pressure.
“I’ve got too much to do to go to bed early – I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“I haven’t got time to sit down for a meal – I’ll grab something quick later.”
Emotional Energy – The Energy of Your Feelings
If your physical energy is the quantity of your energy, then your emotional energy is the quality of that energy. Your emotional energy is your feelings of positivity or negativity toward a person, place, or situation.
Connection with people, places, and a sense of purpose, giving and receiving appreciation, being recognised and feeling valued, all fuel positive emotional energy.
We quickly feel negative when we are disconnected from the people and places we care about, when we feel a lack of purpose for what we are doing, when we feel under-appreciated, undervalued, and do not get recognised for the energy and effort we put into something.
Mental Energy – Your Focus Energy
The energy we get from being in a state of focus is often referred to as being in the zone or in a state of flow.
Mental energy comes from having a clarity in our roles and a clear path to settle in to deep work. It comes when we can manage our own time and make clear decisions, when we can work deeply rather than broadly, and when we can respond rationally and creatively rather than reactively.
The most common distractors to our focus are technology interruptions (messages, emails), meetings, and the myth of multitasking.
The truth is that many jobs require the ability to be both focused and to drop everything and react as required. This, most jobs have a high mental energy drain baked into the cake.
It becomes paramount, then, that taking regular time out to rest and renew your thoughts is as important to a role as being able to react. Few, however, understand this and make space to renew this energy, leaving many people feeling drained and frazzled.
Spiritual Energy – The Energy from Fulfilling Your Passions and Purpose
Where we direct our energy, particularly our pool of discretionary energy, is largely dictated by the deepest intrinsic values we hold, what we feel passionate about, and having a sense of purpose to what we do.
We operate with a sense of perseverance (grit) when we are driven by a sense of fulfilment and passion.
Understanding our own personal beliefs, values, ethics, and what we derive our sense of fulfilment from, can help in setting physical, emotional, and mental energy recharging behaviours.
While all four levels are interrelated, most of our behaviours start from what we personally value. For example, very few people value being healthy for its own sake. But many people value the social recognition that comes from appearing healthy, so they will seek to signal this by going to the gym, or by wearing certain clothing types and brands. Getting fitter may be an outcome of this signalling (not always), but it wasn’t the initial driving force.
If you derive value and fulfilment from your work and/or family life, you can use this understanding as a motivating force for making better decisions regarding your physical, emotional, and mental energy. Feeling like you have more energy and capacity to do the thing you are passionate about only serves to reinforce this passion.
Should a mismatch occur, however, between feeling a sense of purpose and passion for something, and your ability to renew and sustain your energy for it, burnout can occur. In common human resources parlance, passion is referred to as engagement. Someone who is giving a lot of discretionary energy to a task or role is said to be highly engaged (passionate) about what they are doing. Generally, this passion is reinforced by a positive feeling (emotional energy) derived from performing the role.
The flip side of engagement is disengagement. When someone is disengaging from an area in their life, they are conserving their energy. The begin to pull back away from areas in their life which they view to be non-essential at that time, all in order to maintain their mental energy during a time of stress. They are doing only what they have to do in order to avoid the most immediate consequence or to fulfil the most important value.
Feeling under pressure at work, a person may pull back (disengage) from spending time with family or friends or directing any effort toward other behaviours which may ultimately keep them going. They may do this be done to avoid negative consequences such as failure to deliver, negative judgement, or loss of income. This state is unsustainable, however, because many of the things a person disengages from are the very things which recharge their energy pool.
Operating in a state of stress and urgency all of the time leads to rapid energy depletion, and can leave people feeling anxious, frustrated, angry, and defensive. When this state becomes chronic, it heightens the risk for burnout. In our modern world, much of the common depression being seen is this state of energy depletion. It is the body’s normal response to our internal batteries running flat. We lose our motivation to engage in adequate self-care, we lose the ability to feel positive (and sometimes even to feel negative), we can no longer focus on anything for any amount of time and lose all sense of passion and fulfilment from anything.
Working under near constant stress and urgency can be viewed as reactive engagement. States such as burnout and depression can therefore be viewed as a form of reactive disengagement. Using a smartphone as an analogy, you will get several warnings that the battery charge (energy) is running low. If you fail to plug it in to recharge, eventually it will go into power saving mode (the initial energy conservation). Continue to deplete the device’s energy and eventually it will turn off before it goes absolutely flat. The device cannot be restarted until it is plugged into the mains to recharge.
A phone switching itself off to protect its remain 1-2% of energy is reactive disengagement. To avoid this, we normally responsively disengage our devices. We monitor their charge, see the early signs that things are running low, and set to recharge the energy supply. A small period of disengagement dedicated to recharging can leverage a much larger period of engagement.
Applying the above analogy to humans, many aspects of burnout and mental health (such as depression) are tied up with our energy running low. But this can be avoided by accepting that we require our own energy stores to be recharged and setting aside some time to responsively disengage from the high drain environments and to engage in energy recharging behaviours.
Few of us would dream of letting our phones run flat. We are careful to ensure they are regularly recharged and we never make the excuse that the phone is too busy to be recharged right now. Yet we rarely apply such principles to ourselves. However, once we understand that the work-life balance we all seek is built on our personal energy levels, and that there are serious downstream consequences (e.g. mental health problems) to ignoring our energy, it becomes imperative that we adopt such a paradigm, not only for ourselves individually, but also for our workplace cultures and environments.
Nearly every industry and sector are faced with the same problem of demands exceeding capacity. And nearly every industry and sector are trying to deal with these problems in the same way, through some sort of time or stress management. It is both my belief and experience that a focus on recharging our energy capacity will not only change the way we are working for the better but will also help to stem the tide on many of the mental health problems the modern working man is facing.
If you found these ideas intriguing, there is much more from Jamie about his work over at his website Being Human.