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Steve Wanner is a highly respected 37-year-old partner at Ernst & Young, married with four young children. When we met him a year ago, he was working 12 to 14 hours a day, felt perpetually exhausted and found it difficult to fully engage with his family in the evenings, which left him feeling guilty and dissatisfied.

He slept poorly, made no time to exercise and seldom ate healthy meals, instead grabbing a bite to eat on the run or while working at his desk.

Wanner’s experience is not uncommon. Most of us respond to rising demands in the workplace by putting in longer hours, which inevitably take a heavy toll on us physically, mentally and emotionally. That leads to declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates and soaring medical costs among employees.

We at the Energy Project have worked with thousands of leaders and managers in the course of doing consulting and coaching at large organisations during the past five years. With remarkable consistency, these executives tell us they are pushing themselves harder than ever to keep up and increasingly feel they are at a breaking point.

The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story. Defined in physics as the capacity to work, energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals—behaviours that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.

The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story.

To effectively reenergise their workforces, organisations need to shift their emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they are motivated—and able—to bring more of themselves to work every day. To recharge themselves, individuals need to recognise the costs of energy-depleting behaviours and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.

The rituals and behaviours Wanner established to better manage his energy transformed his life. He set an earlier bedtime and gave up drinking, which had disrupted his sleep. As a consequence, when he woke up he felt more rested and more motivated to exercise, which he now does almost every morning. In less than two months he lost 15 pounds. After working out he now sits down with his family for breakfast. Wanner still puts in long hours on the job, but he renews himself regularly along the way. He leaves his desk for lunch and usually takes a morning and an afternoon walk outside. When he arrives at home in the evening, he’s more relaxed and better able to connect with his wife and children.

Establishing simple rituals like these can lead to striking results across organisations. At Wachovia Bank, we took a group of employees through a pilot energy management programme and then measured their performance against that of a control group. The participants outperformed the controls on a series of financial metrics, such as the value of loans they generated. They also reported substantial improvements in their customer relationships, their engagement with work, and their personal satisfaction. In this article, we’ll describe the Wachovia study in a little more detail. Then we’ll explain what executives and managers can do to increase and regularly renew work capacity—the approach used by the Energy Project, which builds on, deepens and extends several core concepts developed by Tony’s former partner Jim Loehr in his seminal work with athletes.

Linking capacity and performance

Most large organisations invest in developing employees’ skills, knowledge and competence. Very few help build and sustain their capacity—their energy—which is typically taken for granted. In fact, greater capacity makes it possible to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement and with more sustainability. Our experience at Wachovia bore this out.

In early 2006 we took 106 employees at 12 regional banks in southern New Jersey through a curriculum of four modules, each of which focused on specific strategies for strengthening one of the four main dimensions of energy. We delivered it at one-month intervals to groups of approximately 20 to 25, ranging from senior leaders to lower-level managers.

We also assigned each attendee a fellow employee as a source of support between sessions. Using Wachovia’s own key performance metrics, we evaluated how the participant group performed compared with a group of employees at similar levels at a nearby set of Wachovia banks who did not go through the training. To create a credible basis for comparison, we looked at year-over-year percentage changes in performance across several metrics.

On a measure called the “Big 3”—revenues from three kinds of loans—the participants showed a year-over-year increase that was 13 percentage points greater than the control group’s in the first three months of our study. On revenues from deposits, the participants exceeded the control group’s year-over-year gain by 20 percentage points during that same period.

The precise gains varied month by month, but with only a handful of exceptions, the participants continued to significantly outperform the control group for a full year after completing the programme. Although other variables undoubtedly influenced these outcomes, the participants’ superior performance was notable in its consistency. (See the exhibit “How Energy Renewal Programmes Boosted Productivity at Wachovia.”)

How energy renewal programmes boosted productivity

At Wachovia Bank, employees participating in an energy renewal programme outperformed a control group of employees, demonstrating significantly greater improvements in year-over-year performance during the first quarter of 2006.

We also asked participants how the programme influenced them personally. Sixty-eight per cent reported that it had a positive impact on their relationships with clients and customers. Seventy-one per cent said it had a noticeable or substantial positive impact on their productivity and performance. These findings corroborated a raft of anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered about the effectiveness of this approach among leaders at other large companies such as Ernst & Young, Sony, Deutsche Bank, Nokia, ING Direct, Ford and MasterCard.

The body: Physical energy

Our programme begins by focusing on physical energy. It is scarcely news that inadequate nutrition, exercise, sleep and rest diminish people’s basic energy levels, as well as their ability to manage their emotions and focus their attention. Nonetheless, many executives don’t find ways to practice consistently healthy behaviours, given all the other demands in their lives.

Before participants in our programme begin to explore ways to increase their physical energy, they take an energy audit, which includes four questions in each energy dimension—body, emotions, mind and spirit. (See the exhibit “Are You Headed for an Energy Crisis?”) On average, participants get eight to 10 of those 16 questions “wrong,” meaning they are doing things such as skipping breakfast, failing to express appreciation to others, struggling to focus on one thing at a time, or spending too little time on activities that give them a sense of purpose. While most participants aren’t surprised to learn these behaviours are counterproductive, having them all listed in one place is often uncomfortable, sobering and galvanising. The audit highlights employees’ greatest energy deficits. Participants also fill out charts designed to raise their awareness of how their exercise, diet and sleep practices influence their energy levels.

Are you headed for an energy crisis?

Please check the statements below that are true for you.

Body

• I don’t regularly get at least seven to eight hours of sleep, and I often wake up feeling tired.

• I frequently skip breakfast, or I settle for something that isn’t nutritious.

• I don’t work out enough (meaning cardiovascular training at least three times a week and strength training at least once a week.

• I don’t take regular breaks during the day to truly renew and recharge, or I often eat lunch at my desk, if I eat it at all.

Emotions

• I frequently find myself feeling irritable, impatient or anxious at work, especially when work is demanding.

• I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones, and when I’m with them, I’m not always really with them.

• I have too little time for the activities that I most deeply enjoy.

• I don’t stop frequently enough to express my appreciation to others or to savour my accomplishments and blessings.