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Keeping Up With the Pace of the Corporate World

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I have been in the technology business for 40 years with my current company. I would like to stay but am finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the pace of change in my current role.

I’ve received a number of awards from my company and believe I still have value, but the culture here tends to be intense, so if you are not perceived to have that intensity, you are toast! How do I determine if my company has programs to retain valued older employees and if they don’t, how do I persuade them they should? Many thanks. 

Answer: You are wise in identifying a potential problem before it becomes one.

The intensity required in your work environment may be equated with energy.  So let’s focus on age and energy.

One approach is to evaluate your level of energy and determine if there is something about your lifestyle that is diminishing it. At the same time, it’s practical to explore management practices that would maximize your contribution to the company.

Let’s begin by discussing normal aging and energy.

Dr. Julie K. Silver, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and chief editor of books for Harvard Health Publications, notes online that increased fatigue is not inevitable with age. However, there are certain age-related factors that can make one feel less energetic.

Aging affects sleep rhythms. The circadian cycle advances, making one want to sleep earlier at night and wake up earlier in the morning. For reasons unknown, according to Silver, older adults spend less time in deep sleep, the kind of sleep that is considered most important in restoring energy.

Aging can cause physical changes that affect energy levels. For example, we know that muscles shrink with age. A drop in muscle mass means less strength, which can translate into an increase in fatigue.

The good news is that exercising to maintain strength and flexibility can offset that normal age decline.

Aging can also affect mental energy. Some older adults have a harder time concentrating and remembering things, and find it takes a little longer to learn new information. These changes are related to chemical changes in the brain that affect memory and learning.

Again, the good news is that learning – learning new skills and learning anything new – can create new neural pathways in our brains, again offsetting normal aging declines.

Clearly, there are legitimate reasons to feel less energetic or intense with age, particularly in highly demanding environments.

Lifestyles may play a role.

In the October 2007 Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy wrote a piece titled “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.”

The authors directed the article to organizations that want to increase their capacity to get things done. They noted that as the demand for high performance increases, employees are “working longer hours, getting exhausted, disengaged and sick.”

Although the article is directed to employers, many of the points are relevant to individuals – in or out of organizations – who are exhausted at any life stage.

Here are selected statements from the authors’ “energy audit,” to help determine if one is headed for an energy crisis:

  • “I don’t regularly get at least seven to eight hours of sleep and often wake up feeling tired.”
  • “I don’t work out enough (cardiovascular three times a week; strength training at least once a week).”
  • “I frequently skip breakfast or settle for something that is not nutritious.”
  • “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 at all.”
  • “I have too little time for the activities that I most deeply enjoy.”
  • “I don’t stop frequently enough to express my appreciation or to savor my accomplishments and blessings.”
  • “I don’t take enough time for reflection, strategizing and creative thinking.”
  • “I work in the evenings or on weekends and almost never take an e-mail- (or text-) free vacation.”
  • “There are significant gaps between what I say is most important to me in my life and how I actually allocate my time and energy.”

Schwartz and McCarthy note that we get our energy from four sources: our body, emotions, mind and human spirit.

Each influences our energy, with recommended rituals to prevent energy deficits. The rituals are behaviors that are intentionally practiced and scheduled, with the goal of making them automatic as quickly as possible.

Our body
The body is a source of physical energy. We know that lack of nutrition, exercise and sleep diminishes physical energy and the ability to manage emotions and to focus attention.

Rituals: Improve sleep by going to bed earlier and reducing alcohol consumption. Reduce stress with cardiovascular and strength training. Be aware of signs of low energy such as “restlessness, yawning, hunger and difficulty concentrating.”

Our emotions
Emotions affect the quality of our energy. We cannot physiologically sustain intense emotions for long periods of time without periods of recovery. And with age, recovery typically takes a little longer.

If we ignore the need for “down time,” we may become “irritable, impatient, anxious and insecure.” And such emotions can be exhausting.

Rituals: Diffuse negative emotions with deep-breathing exercises. Positive emotions can be enhanced by expressing appreciation to others.

And if we have an intensely difficult situation, consider, “How will I think about this in six months and what can I learn from it?”

Our mind

The mind and what we do with it affects the focus of our energy.

For example, multi-tasking has been considered a value in the work place. In reality, it undermines productivity. As much as 25 percent of time is wasted in switching from one task to another.

Rituals: When tasks require high performance, stay away from e-mails, texting and the telephone.

Every night, identify the most important challenge for the next day. Make that a priority the next morning – whether at home, the office, studio, laboratory or volunteer setting.

Our spirit
The human spirit derives energy from our purpose and meaning in life. When daily activities are consistent with our values, we derive a sense of meaning. As a result, we typically have “more positive energy, focus better and demonstrate greater perseverance.”

Rituals: Allocate time and energy to what is most important to you. Try this on a daily basis, even if you only allocate a short amount of time. Live according to your values. If doing for others is part of your values, make this a priority.

Finally, recall when you have felt absorbed, effective and inspired. Now deconstruct that experience to understand what has energized you. Was it your creativity? Using one of your skills?

Now, here are a few steps to consider regarding your employer:

  • Be able to describe your value to the company, both currently and in the future.
  • Check the company’s policy manual and look for flexible work opportunities.
  • Meet with your supervisor and present a workable plan that maximizes your effectiveness. That may include working shorter hours or part of the week, moving to a less demanding position (downshifting), or becoming a mentor for part of your work time.
  • Become acquainted with how other companies utilize their mature and competent workers. Phased retirement might be an option.

The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo is a good example. The company has been a leader in what they call “casual workers.” These are retired employees who are called back on a part-time basis to work on specific projects.

Another example is Deloitte Consulting LLP’s mentoring program. The company provides opportunities for their experienced workers to be paired with younger staff as mentors.

Your plan may have three components: Determine if you are doing all you can do to maximize your personal energy; develop a case for yourself regarding your contributions and value; and discuss with your supervisor new ways to work that satisfy you and your employer.

Thank you for your good question and best wishes for continuing to work despite a little less energy.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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