What Mental Needs Do Employees Have?

Focus and prioritization are primary sources of pain in many organizations today.

Technological overload is one of the primary causes. Never before have we been subjected to so much incoming information, so continuously, and with so much expectation to respond instantly.

In a much-cited study, Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, looked at workers at two high-tech firms and found that on average, they spent eleven minutes on any given project, during which they spent only an average of 3 minutes per task.

At the same time, the researcher David Meyer has found that when human beings juggle multiple tasks, it takes significantly longer to finish each of them.

The Energy Project’s study backed up both of these findings. Very few respondents said they are able to focus in an absorbed way on their highest priorities, but those who can experience a variety of positive performance effects.

Focus

While only 19% of respondents said they were able to consistently focus their attention on one thing at a time, those with the highest level of focus reported being 29% more engaged.

Only 16% of respondents said they regularly allocated time for creative and strategic thinking, the lowest number for any behavior in our survey. Those who allocate such time are 83% more likely to stay with their organization.

Prioritization

Only slightly more than 1/3 of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, and less than a quarter of them said their own leaders set clear priorities and stayed focused on them.

Those who were able to effectively prioritize reported being 48% more engaged and 89% more likely to stay with their organization

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For Leaders: Encourage Focus

In the mental dimension, as in all dimensions, leaders must focus on both modeling and support.

For example, if leaders regularly send out emails in the evenings and over the weekends, it’s a near guarantee that their direct reports will feel compelled to read and respond to them. Even when leaders say they don’t expect responses on weekends, their behavior speaks louder than their words.

A comparable problem occurs when leaders have the expectation – explicit or unspoken – that employees will respond immediately to emails sent during the workday. The consequence is that employees are repeatedly distracted from their ongoing work.

Sure enough, only 19% of our respondents said they were regularly able to focus on one thing at a time, and only 16% said they allocated sacrosanct time to creative and strategic thinking.

Ushering in the Human Era at Work

It’s time to usher in the Human Era at work. In the Human Era, leaders take better care of their people, so people can take better care of their business.

The better people’s needs are met, the more healthy, happy, engaged, productive, and loyal they become. Take care of them, and they’ll take care of business.

The Human Era calls for a new kind of leader, whose most fundamental role is to serve as Chief Energy Officers, responsible for mobilizing, focusing, inspiring, and regularly recharging the energy of those they lead.

Mentally, effective leaders create an environment in which employees are empowered to set clear priorities and firm boundaries, so they’re able to focus in an absorbed way on immediate, tactical work, to take sacrosanct time for creative and strategic thinking, and to work flexibly, in ways that best suit their needs.

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About the Survey

The Energy Project partnered with the Harvard Business Review to release the Quality of Life @ Work assessment, a 56-question survey designed to examine the world of work: organizational policies, practices, and mindsets, leader behaviors, and the feelings and responses of employees, at all levels, within those companies.

The survey was conducted online through HBR.org from November 2013 through June 2014 and included responses from nearly 20,000 employees working in organizations of all size, at all levels in over 25 industries. For a breakout of the respondent profile, see pages 13-15 of the original report.