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A Surprising Way to Overcome Fatigue at Work


Do you feel exhausted at work? The culprit could be your team's emotional culture.

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash
Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

If you can’t start the day without a caffeine hit, battle sleepiness on your commute to work and feel exhausted by the time you get to the office, you are not alone.

Studies indicate that as many as 3 in 10 people experience prolonged fatigue.

There are many possible causes of exhaustion, but Mira Kirshenbaum, a psychotherapist and researcher, points us to a surprising finding: the most significant cause of low energy is not the lack of sleep, nutritional deficits, or insufficient physical rest.

Kirschenbaum found that:

Physical energy supplies – at the most – 30 percent of our total energy.

The remaining 70 percent of our energy comes from our emotions.

In view of these findings, it’s clear that taking care of our physical wellbeing is a necessary but not sufficient condition to feel energized.

Generating the energy we need for a good quality of life requires creating the right emotional environment – both internally and externally.

Creating the right emotional environment

When it comes to the internal emotional environment, you probably already know that your self-talk and the way you think about your circumstances will have a massive impact on the way you feel.

Pop psychology and the self-help literature will tell you: “Master the internal narrative, and you’ll live in a state of bliss.”

What they tend to overlook, however, is the impact of the external environment on our well-being.

The reality is that the people we interact with frequently trigger most of the emotions that we experience daily.

To understand why this happens, it’s useful to look at a phenomenon called “emotional contagion.”

Emotional contagion

When people live and work in close proximity, they “infect” one another with their emotions — the more stable the group and the greater the interdependencies between its members, the stronger the emotional contagion.

At work, a team member’s anxiety can spread like a virus and impact productivity in the whole team. The good news is that happiness and other positive emotions are contagious, too – and result in improved collaboration, satisfaction, and performance.

It might feel counterintuitive at first, but looking at the emotions you catch from your colleagues can help you recover from chronic exhaustion. Reflecting on how your workgroup affects your emotions can be an essential step towards recharging your batteries – both at work and beyond.

So ask yourself: What emotions do I experience at work?

If your list includes joy, excitement, gratitude, interest, curiosity, enthusiasm, and patience and yet you are still feeling sluggish, you either need more zzzs, or you should be getting your bloodwork done. It’s not the emotional energy that you are missing!

But if the emotions that dominate your list include boredom, panic, frustration, anxiety, shame, or fear, you’ve just discovered a significant energy drain in your life.

Cultivating a healthy emotional culture

In the workplace, an important source (or drain) of emotional energy is the emotional culture.

Emotional culture is a set of norms that shape people’s expectations as to which emotions are likely to arise and be accepted by others and which are rare occurrences that are frowned upon.

For example, in some teams, expressing anger and frustration is common and acceptable, while signs of joy and excitement are rare and considered childish.

As you can imagine, emotional culture has a huge impact on how people feel at work. The culturally acceptable emotions spread like wildfire, multiply exponentially and affect people so deeply that they end up carrying them home – to their families, friends, and communities.

Changing an emotional culture can feel like a daunting task. But no matter how difficult it might seem at first, you and your teammates can take charge and give it the update it deserves.

Emotional culture update

Culture is the operating system your team runs on. Failing to consciously cultivate your emotional culture will have the same consequences as not updating the software on your phone. Skip a few updates and suddenly nothing seems to work as it should!

An excellent place to start giving your emotional culture an update is with a simple exercise that I designed and use when working with teams.

To make it work, you will need a couple of hours of distraction-free time with your teammates, a large dose of honesty, a willingness to change things for the better, and…a lot of sticky notes!

The process you’ll use is similar to the steps you follow when using Google Maps for directions. First, you verify your location. Then you choose your destination, look at the route options, pick the one that makes the most sense given your circumstances, and finally press start and, hey presto – you are on your way to recharging your batteries at work!

Step 1 – Verify your location
In this step, ask everyone in the room: WHAT ARE THE EMOTIONS YOU EXPERIENCE MOST FREQUENTLY AT WORK?
The objective is to identify and map your current emotional culture.

Step 2 – Choose your destination
This step focuses on answering the following question: WHAT ARE THE EMOTIONS WE NEED TO FEEL TO HAVE THE ENERGY NECESSARY TO REACH AND EXCEED OUR GOALS?
The outcome of this conversation will be your team’s 5 Core Emotions. They will underpin your Desired Emotional Culture.

Step 3: Identify the best options
In this step, your team aims to find the answers to the following questions: WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE? HOW CAN WE MOVE THE NEEDLE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION? This is when you will think of the initiatives and practices you will implement to upgrade your culture.

Step 4: GO, GO, GO!
Now that you’ve verified your location, identified the destination, and have chosen the route to your Desired Emotional Culture, the only thing left to do is to press go and get moving! This is the time to make changes that will replenish your energy, not deplete it.

For example, a team I worked with identified being challenged and stimulated as one of their core feelings. To achieve that, everyone committed to tackling projects and tasks that pushed them out of their comfort zone. The team held weekly huddles where members shared what challenges they had set for themselves and others and what they had learned as a result.

Working on your team’s emotional culture will pay dividends over time, not the least of which is its members feeling vibrant and energized – both at work and in their personal lives. I’ve seen the emotional energy in teams shift in a significant way as a result of the emotional culture work.

If you would like to get free resources that will help you update and evolve your culture, click here.

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