Sustaining Energy to Change the World
Imagine this: You’re leading a team of determined and passionate people who are committed to bringing positive change to others, to society at large, or to the planet as a whole. Your team believes deeply in the purpose of their work, which gives them a powerful source of energy.
At the same time, the intense workload, long working hours, and frequent travel drives people to sacrifice their own personal health and social needs to deliver on your mission. Maybe the constant hustle means they rarely take the time to process, reflect, and discuss the emotional toll of their work. Perhaps they feel fragmented as they plow through frequently shifting priorities without the time or space to prioritize and think strategically. Possibly, they feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the magnitude of the mission, or impatient about slow progress.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In a world of increasing demand and complexity, organizations across industries need to be more intentional about how their people manage their energy – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. This is especially true in the social-impact sector.
While spiritual energy –energy derived from doing something that truly matters to us – is powerful, it’s only one of four sources of energy that human beings require to operate at our best. When we fail to manage the other three sources of energy as well, people suffer and so do their organizations.
A primary challenge within mission-driven organizations is their inclination to focus on serving others at the expense of their own needs which inevitably limits the quality of their service to others. To truly serve their missions, these organizations require a culture that not only permits physical renewal, but actively encourages and rewards it as a fuel for employees to perform sustainably at the highest levels. Organizations need to shift from seeing self-care as a “nice-to-have” when time allows, to a practice that is critical to the mission.
Mission-driven work can be emotionally challenging in a way that many jobs are not. Everyday encounters with human rights violations, poverty, violence, injustice, and environmental degradation would drain the energy of even those who prioritize self-care, especially when the issues feel deeply personal. For people working in these organizations, the missions often reflect who they are, who they want to be, and the world they want to create. As a result, there is often a deeply personal and emotional attachment to their work.
That makes it all the more critical for them to notice the impact the work is having, and to stay aware of how they are feeling at any given time. That way, they can make more conscious choices about what they do and how they show up – both at work and at home.
In addition to the emotional toll of social impact work, resource constraints, shifting priorities, inefficient internal systems, and a constant sense of urgency all serve to drain people’s energy, inhibit focus, and stifle creativity. They make it difficult to find the time and space to think strategically about their mission and ensure they are pulling in the right stakeholders and resources to deliver on their goals.
In order to perform at their best, people need to be able to move freely and flexibly between narrow, tactical focus on the most critical tasks, and wider, big-picture thinking that allows for reflection, creativity, brainstorming, strategizing, and prioritizing. Without that balance, they stay in firefighting mode, unable to distinguish between real fires and imagined ones, to identify what’s truly urgent, see how it fits into the larger picture, make a plan, and mobilize the right team to deliver.
Finally, while mission-driven organizations do a great job of fueling people’s sense of purpose, they aren’t always intentional about how the mission and values show up in the organizational culture, policies, performance management systems, and employee benefits. If organizations don’t “walk their talk,” they risk diluting the power of their higher purpose. Over the long term, this can drain employees’ energy and lead to stress, dissonance, disengagement, and even disillusionment.
Overall, social-impact organizations need to be conscious and intentional about meeting the multidimensional energy needs of their employees, so that they are able to deliver sustainably on their mission. Here are some quick tips to promote renewal across all four dimensions of energy:
- Physical energy: Offer flexible work options, so people can optimize their own schedules and build in time for renewal throughout the day. Encourage recovery days following work trips to give people time to rest, process their experiences, reconnect with loved ones, and realign to their routines before returning to work. Build in structured moments for reflection and renewal, times when people can breathe deeply and ground themselves so they are in the right physical state to keep going.
- Emotional energy: Provide reflective space for people to acknowledge and to process their emotions, formally, through mentor programs or counseling support, and/or informally, during team discussions. Create peer support systems to connect people with colleagues and friends facing similar experiences. Finally, check in and celebrate intermediate milestones to help people stay connected to the meaningful progress they’re making toward the broader mission.
- Mental energy: Encourage open discussions about task urgency and prioritization to reorient the team toward shared goals and ensure team members are contributing meaningfully. Evaluate the effectiveness of internal processes (e.g. your meeting culture) to determine whether they may be diverting people’s time from more important strategic tasks that require uninterrupted focus. Encourage employees to make the space for reflection and big-picture thinking.
- Promote spiritual energy renewal: Regularly assess your culture to ensure that leaders and staff are living the organization’s values. Include open and honest conversations at all levels of the organization about the purpose and the efficacy of the mission. Finally, strengthen individuals’ connections to their work by recognizing their unique contributions to advancing the mission.
Emily Pines is Managing Director of Content for The Energy Project
Elissa Goldenberg is Founder & President of EGCC
Managing Director, Content Development
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