Why Leaders Can’t Ignore the Human Energy Crisis

Leaders can’t ignore the human energy crisis. It’s not a future problem; it’s already here.

We wanted to share this article from LinkedIn that discusses this further.

Since the World Health Organization categorized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019, it’s only become more widespread and exacerbated thanks to the realities of the last few years.

I’d argue we’re facing a crisis, but it’s more than burnout. Social unrest, geopolitical instability, and economic uncertainty have also combined in a perfect storm causing strain on the invaluable human capital that keeps our companies running.

We’re faced with a Human Energy Crisis.

As with climate change, warning signs abound. Just as we’ve seen melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and wildly swinging temperatures, on the human level we’ve seen languishing, depleted surge capacity and a global mental health crisis. According to Gallup, seven in 10 people globally report they are struggling or suffering.

As a leader—especially in HR—I think about what leaders and managers can uniquely influence, and that’s the employee experience. Evidence of the Human Energy Crisis is affecting the working world in dramatic fashion. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen workday span increase more than 13% and after-hours and weekend work are up 28% and 14% respectively. While the pandemic opened flexibility into how, when, and where people work, if we’re not careful, that same flexibility could only add to the crisis.

The Human Energy Crisis calls for a new kind of workplace sustainability that’s an imperative for every organization. Leaders, the task ahead of us is about regenerating energy for our employees at work and ensuring it’s renewable and sustainable.

People have worked hard and pushed limits throughout history, so what’s different?

In the face of the Human Energy Crisis, our latest Work Trend Index data shows workers around the world have a new “worth it” equation, with 53% of respondents—particularly parents (55%) and women (56%)—saying they’re more likely to prioritize their health and wellbeing over work than before. And they’re taking action: the number one reason cited for leaving their jobs in the last year was for personal wellbeing or mental health reasons. But even as we saw The Great Resignation emerge as a stopgap solution for some people to own a feeling of control in their lives or try to address wellbeing concerns, The Great Regret emerged almost as quickly. What we’ve learned is people want to keep working—just not at the expense of their overall health and happiness.

To me, this is a clear sign that the responsibility for personal wellbeing can’t—and shouldn’t—rest solely on an individual’s shoulders. Addressing the Human Energy Crisis starts with understanding how your people are affected—and what will help. To get to the right answers, we must acknowledge that none of us are the same people today as we were in early 2020. We can’t apply yesterday’s approaches to improve today’s employee experience.

At Microsoft, we recently tapped our People Analytics team to tune our listening systems for the current workplace environment. We wanted to evolve from measuring how productive and engaged employees are to how well are they thriving. We define thriving as “being energized and empowered to do meaningful work.” When we measured employee thriving this spring, the data showed “energized” ranked lower than any other aspect of thriving.

This is a clear call to action: We all need to do better for our employees.

What’s at stake if we don’t? Employee happiness, inspiration, retention—and ultimately, innovation. It’s impossible to create and innovate with a sapped internal battery. And as new challenges arise around the world, empowering the people tackling those challenges is more important than ever.

So, how do we help add sustainable fuel to an employee’s energy reserves instead of quick fixes? What’s kindling and what delivers a long, slow burn?

In the work environment, here are six key areas I believe will help add continued fuel to the fire.

#1 Putting culture and purpose front and center

We’ve been on a culture journey for many years and have seen the power of a positive culture transformation. Creating a culture where employees feel empowered, included, and autonomous—among other attributes—is crucial. And that culture also needs to offer connection to the company’s purpose, so every employee can see their work as meaningful and themselves as a mission critical component of the organization.

I liken that connection to the 5Ps of employee fulfillment—pay, perks, people, pride, and purpose—recognizing that these five areas contribute to a culture where people feel valued and fulfilled.

In a conversation with Alexia Cambon at Gartner discussing her recent report, “Culture in a Hybrid World,” she shared that culture connectedness can increase employee performance and retention by over 30%.

Culture change requires an ongoing commitment to ensuring all employees (regardless of tenure) are continually reminded of and engaged in your company culture and purpose. You can’t freeze and unfreeze culture on demand—it’s earned every day, and not in just one way. Culture needs to be infused in all people processes, commitments, manager accountability, who you recruit, and who you reward. In today’s environment, prioritizing culture and purpose are key to fueling employee sustainability.

#2 Making wellbeing holistic

In recent years, much has been reported and written about mental health, and it is clear that external impacts are taking a toll on employee wellbeing. According to a recent Gallup poll, people around the world are stressed and anxious: 44% of employees say they experienced stress a lot during the previous day. What’s worse, fewer than 25% percent said they felt their employer cared about their wellbeing.

And for those companies that do offer support, we’re faced with a mental health system that’s been completely drained. Sixty-five percent of more than 1,100 psychologists surveyed recently said their practices were at full capacity, against the backdrop of surging demand —particularly for anxiety, depressive, and trauma-related disorders. And mental health practitioners themselves are facing exhaustion, with nearly 50% reporting feeling burnout last year.

We’re facing a mental health tsunami and it’s hard to navigate how and where to get help in a complicated system. Employees need help to assess where they are, and then find the right care—and they need it faster than the current system can provide.

That’s where employers come in. We must help fill in the gaps, because focusing on wellbeing increases energy. We recently joined together with many public and private companies to pledge our commitment to both providing holistic wellbeing resources to our employees and taking the wellbeing journey with them. Providing tools to help support holistic wellbeing is table stakes. Going the extra mile to address it together is the differentiator. Wellbeing isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, nor is its solution.

#3 Supporting career growth in meaningful ways

In the not-so-distant past, the path to career growth was undeniability rigid: a set of linear steps were taken to meet goals. In other words, the career track was a ladder. Now, the ladder is more like a climbing wall and there are many paths to career success. The average person has 12 jobs in their lifetime, with an average tenure of three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a lot of learning and relearning—and why upskilling, reskilling, and screening in are so important. A person’s career potential is not defined by their path so much as their passions.

Supporting those passions by providing access to enrichment to help our people plan their next career move is a foundational aspect of our learn-it-all culture. In fact, we’ve seen the key factors that drive thriving are tied to career: making good use of skills, building critical capabilities, and expecting valuable career experiences. And this can’t be done without support from managers, leaders, and mentors. Ensuring employees have resources like career days, access to mentoring, and opportunities for continued skilling can provide excitement that sparks longevity and excitement for growth, and a channel to apply their passions in their careers.

#4 Focusing on leader and manager capabilities

It stands without question that quality leadership is an essential component of thriving organizations. However, the pandemic taught us an important lesson about the essential role of both leaders and managers. In a hybrid work environment, managers are crucial to driving team connection and employee wellbeing. Similarly, leaders need to “walk the talk” and demonstrate they truly care about their employees and are committed to helping them thrive.

Several years ago, we identified three core Leadership Principles: Generate Energy, Create Clarity, and Deliver Success. We shared these with all our employees with guidance that everyone at the company has the potential to be a leader, whether they manage people or not. This spring, we began to measure how successful leaders are delivering on these principles and found that “generate energy” was rated the highest. While this is encouraging, feeling “energized most days by the work I do” was the lowest scoring element of employees’ experience with thriving. We clearly have more work to do, including equipping leaders with tools and capabilities to help deliver renewable energy to their teams.

Like our leadership principles, we shared our Manager Framework called, Model, Coach, Care. The data tells us managers are providing support with wellbeing, coaching employees to prioritize their work and set boundaries, and demonstrating that they truly care about each employee and their needs. However, there are gaps in supporting managers with these same needs—they need their energy reserves topped off as well.

I believe the role of leaders and managers will continue to become more acute. To succeed in generating energy, our imperative is to remove obstacles to enable success, leverage team strengths and diversity for impact, and encourage risk-taking and learning from both success and failure.

#5 Building supportive team connections

The past few years have given us all windows into each others’ worlds. Perhaps for the first time, we know more about what our colleagues are going through in their lives outside of work, and we mustn’t overlook the importance of team connection in addition to leader and manager support. Even before the pandemic began, the American Surgeon General Vivek Murthy saw what he called a “loneliness epidemic,” and a supportive team is one antidote. Great teams show up for each other—they cover when one is out for an emergency, provide emotional support when times are hard, and help energize each other. Building supportive team connections isn’t all about work, either. Levity and fun are important aspects of team building. So much so, that LinkedIn recently added a “funny” reaction, encouraging people to share the lighter side of work alongside the serious. Our data shows that “a good relationship with co-workers” is important to our employees—they rank it in the top three factors contributing to their ability to do their best work.

To foster a supportive team that refuels its energy supplies together, companies need to get clear on team agreements, ensure meeting inclusivity (in person and online), empower authenticity, and encourage fun.

#6 Being intentional to offer flexibility where possible

There’s an underlying performative nature of corporate culture that can be so pervasive we may not even know we’re doing it. This is what “Out of Office” co-author Anne Helen Peterson calls “LARPing your job,”—Live Action Role Playing—looking busy by instantly responding to every IM, holding unnecessary meetings, logging on early and staying late, and more.

 It’s an understandable response to an individual’s desire to feel secure in their role, especially if there’s perceived pressure to build evidence of working to be seen as actually working. But “proving” they’re working, on top of their actual work, can take a toll. What if—at the leadership level—we make it clear that we don’t equate job “performing” with job performance? And what if flexibility—the ability for each employee to work with their teams to develop work schedules that fit their lives, not build their lives around their work schedules—becomes the standard?

I believe a mindset of impact over activity is key to empowering employees to feel like they can take advantage of flexible work. Autonomy and trust, when balanced with accountability frees employees to focus on the most important metric—impact—the ultimate source of energy renewal. It gives people permission to balance their lives in meaningful ways without feeling they must sacrifice career growth for personal priorities and vice versa. It means they don’t have to LARP.

The future of work depends on creating renewable human energy

Our mission statement urges us to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. But we can’t empower others without holistic wellbeing, starting with flexibility, carrying through to supportive career development and caring for the entire individual, and concluding with an open feedback loop where employees feel heard and empowered.

This Human Energy Crisis demands more than virtual happy hours or free yoga classes: leaders need to reassess their company culture and leadership ethos from the ground up to create renewable resources within the talent pool or risk a long-lasting drought. Now more than ever, positive business outcomes depend on positive people outcomes.


Kathleen Hogan
Chief People Officer & EVP, Human Resources

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