Jan Hills argues that boosting the energy of your workforce is possibly the most important but least talked about role for HR

This first week of the New Year is often a struggle. We return to work with mixed feelings at best and even if we love our job, getting the energy back to be fully enthusiastic is hard. So if your energy or that of the team is lacking this week, you may find understanding a little more about energy can help.

Over the past year I have noticed how important it is for organisations to create work environments that maximise employee energy. For me, observing this highlighted the difference between leaders, cultures and practices that enthuse and energise people and those that drain their energy.

Historically, the majority of HR practice has been about adopting a technical, analytical approach while soft factors like emotions and feelings play a secondary role. And although energy is often mentioned anecdotally, it receives little attention as a means of improving performance and engagement.

But I think that understanding what inspires energy and what drains it is possibly the most important and least talked about role of the HR function. Surely the point of HR is to ensure that a company’s purpose and strategy capture people’s imagination, emotion and excitement, engage their cognitive capacities and inspire them to take action. It’s all about generating an environment with a sense of genuine purpose that unleashes and focuses energy that will drive maximum productivity, engagement and wellbeing.

Research by Busch & Vogal discussed in Harvard Business Review in 2004 found that people with a lot of energy are more productive, creative and have a naturally positive influence on others (1). And in Eastern philosophy Qi (life power or energy flow) is an important concept that often crops up in relation to physical and mental health and fitness, but in the West it receives less recognition. Although it is just beginning to be mentioned in research looking at the impact of social networks and the role of emotions in organisations (2). There is some evidence that social connection can create positive energy for individuals and across an organisation (3).

Energy varies in intensity as well as quality, which you will see in people’s levels of activity, interaction, alertness, and emotional arousal. For example, if intensity is low then you’re likely to sense apathy and inertia, tiredness, inflexibility and cynicism (4). Maybe that’s you this week. Professor Heike Bruch and the late professor Sumantra Ghoshal say that it is the combination of intensity and quality that determines the total energy in an organisation (5).

From our brain’s perspective, this intensity and quality seems to me to depend on the clarity of purpose and the ability to pursue goals that come from that purpose, as well as the quality of connection with others. They provide a sense of value, which is energising (6).

We also know from research that these types of emotions are contagious. So if you are struggling this week do as many of the things on the list below as you can. Even doing one of them will help:

• Seek out someone who is high energy and feed off their positive emotions
• Clarify your goals for the year and take one or two steps towards achieving them
• Do something you feel passionate about
• Work on something you know you are good at. We feel more energised when we connect with our competence
• Spend time with other people, preferably people you like and preferably face to face.

We’ll be covering what energises and de-energises people in organisations at our HR and neuroscience breakfast club next week. You can register at http://www.headheartbrain.com/energy-in-organisations/.


1. H Busch & B Vogal, Fully charged: How great leaders boost their organisations energy and ignite high performance, Harvard Business Review Press, 2004
2. Andrew Parker & Rob Cross, The Hidden Power of Social Networks Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 2004
3. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003
4. R Cross, W Baker & A Parker, ‘What Creates Energy in Organisations?’ Sloan Management Review, July 2003, pp. 51–56
5. H Busch & B Vogal, Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost their Organisation’s Energy and Ignite High Performance, Harvard Business Review Press, 2004
6. Nook & Zaki, cited at the NeuroLeadership Summit, 2014