In the second post of this series, I offered a checklist to help organizations support high levels of physical energy among their employees. This third post is focused on how organizations can help people protect, sustain, and build their mental energy.
Mental energy is important for concentrating, thinking, and solving problems. When people are low on mental energy, they may feel overwhelmed, have trouble concentrating or staying alert, and make mistakes or poor decisions. Because the world of work is where many people encounter a large part of the mental stimulation they experience, and because mental acuity is critical to job performance, organizations have a particularly important role in creating an environment that supports mental energy.
Here are some things to consider as you evaluate your organization’s effectiveness in this area:
Human attention is a finite resource. Each thing that engages a person’s mind drains a bit of this capacity. Organizations support strong mental energy when they help people use their attention in focused, intentional ways. Here are some questions for leaders and change agents to consider about the organization’s support for attention.
- Multitasking Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage and enable people to focus on one thing at a time where possible? Do people understand that multitasking involves switching attention back and forth between different activities, and that extra energy is used to do this? Do leaders set realistic expectations about how many things can get done at once?
- Distractions Does the organization’s physical environment provide places where people can work without high levels of noise? Is it acceptable for people to set aside times when they turn off phone and email? Do people have ways of signaling to others that they should not be disturbed?
- Systems Does the organization create processes and procedures that enable people to reduce unnecessary effort on routine tasks? Are people clear enough about their roles and responsibilities that they don’t need to spend extra mental energy figuring out what to do or how to do it? Are materials and information stored in organized ways so people can easily find what they need?
The human brain is capable of a wide variety of operations; each of them needs exercise to function at its highest potential. When people have a chance to regularly engage in different kinds of thinking activities, and to move back and forth between different kinds of mental work, they are better prepared to deal efficiently and effectively with new mental challenges. Here are some of the types of exercise the brain needs:
- Creativity Do people have regular opportunities to explore new ideas and possibilities? Does the work environment include time for spontaneity and fun?
- Problem-solving Do people regularly have the opportunity to solve challenging problems or address tough issues? Is analytical thinking valued in the organization? Do people come together periodically to combine their knowledge and expertise on dealing with important concerns?
- FocusDo people have the opportunity for concentrated thinking about important topics related to their work? Are people encouraged to think deeply about things?
- Reflection Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage individuals to take time for self-reflection? Do people and teams take time after major events to pause and evaluate their effectiveness?
- Down Time Does the organization’s pace of work allow time for people to periodically step away from work demands? Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage individuals to replenish their energy with breaks, time off, and vacations?
In addition to making sure that attention is not drained unnecessarily and that people have a chance to exercise their brains, organizations can help people increase their mental energy by enabling them to expand their thinking and learn new things. Here are some things that contribute to building mental energy:
- Expertise Does the organization provide training and other learning opportunities to help people deepen their knowledge? Are people encouraged to develop their expertise by teaching and mentoring others? Is learning seen as an important investment of time and resources?
- Stretch Are people encouraged to take on new assignments and responsibilities that require them to push beyond their current patterns of thinking and behavior? Are goals set at a level that encourages people to continually improve their effectiveness? Do leaders support people in taking the risks that come with moving outside of their comfort zones?
I encourage you to take a few minutes to evaluate your organization and identify some simple changes that can help you, and those around you, create and sustain higher levels of mental energy.
In the next entry in this series, we will look at the organization’s role in supporting emotional energy.