May 22, 2011


Second Wind

SECOND WIND/Image: Michael Moffa

“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.”—Dale Carnegie

“Energy: the capacity to do work (physics)”—dictionary definition

You feel tired near the end of your day. If that happens every day or most days, it can be a psychological clue about how you feel about your job, how you are working or what you are working at, rather than about how “hard” you are working.

Inhibition Energy and Pseudo-Fatigue

It all depends on what your energy is like the minute you step out the office door. If you remain tired, that means the job probably does make real demands on your total energy reserves. On the other hand, if, the moment you exit the elevator, you suddenly feel like clicking your heels and playing several sets of tennis or on a sax, it probably means that your job is either only selectively draining your energy or, intriguingly, is not utilizing enough of your energy. It means you are experiencing “pseudo-fatigue”—a sense of fatigue unrelated to actual depletion of physiological/biochemical energy.

Suppose, for example, you are the kind of recruiter who enjoys playing detective and trying to figure out what an applicant or client is really like or looking for, whether the applicant is really qualified, etc. You relish the challenge the way avid boat-in-a-bottle builders do: with focus, determination and delight. However, you find yourself spending too much of your time doing other things, e.g., organizing files and doing administrative paperwork, which seem to sit like a gorilla on your neck.

At the end of the day, you’re beat and ready to drag yourself to the door. But then, something puzzling happens: The office door closes and you suddenly feel energized enough to sprint home. What happened?

What happened was that the fatigue you experienced at work was a kind of “pseudo-fatigue”—in this case, tiredness attributable to not being able to use energy, rather than to having used energy up. Psychologically or physiologically speaking, it may be that in order to suppress your natural inclination to use certain kinds of energy on the job, e.g., creative, intellectual, analytical, physical, social or emotional, you have to expend a substantial amount of energy inhibiting these or in coping with the stress the unappealing tasks generate, in addition to expending some modest amount of energy actually and merely doing the unappealing parts of your work.

Those unappealing aspects of your work may, in fact, make few real mitochondrial ADP-ATP molecular or caloric-energy demands on you, e.g., proofreading your documentation; but, because performing those tasks requires suppression of all the activities you’d rather be engaged in and suppression of all of the associated forms of energy you’d love to expend, e.g., in tennis, high-level analysis, socializing with contacts or creatively designing brochures for your company, you may experience, instead, some or all of the following:

  • Boredom that is experienced as fatigue
  • Tiring tension, caused by the conflict between what you have to do and what you want to do
  • Tiring pressure, caused by the awareness that you must get the unpleasant job done and by a specified time
  • Psychological exhaustion, caused by the battle between what you have to do and what you want to do—a war waged using inhibitory energy as ammunition

“Hard” Jobs and “Energy”

Clearly, a “hard” job makes demands on “energy” (whatever that is, besides available calories and metabolic activity). But, describing a job as “hard” is as obfuscating as describing a person as “lazy”. That’s because there are lots of very different reasons for describing a job or a worker these ways. One employee may be “lazy” because he simply and generally has very little stamina, another because she has very little motivation or interest, a third because she doesn’t know what she is supposed to do, yet another because he is fearful of the possibility of failure, and still another because she is passive aggressive and has a grudge against her boss. Likewise, a “hard” job can be hard in many ways: physically, intellectually, morally, emotionally, creatively, volitionally (because it stifles your will or tests your will power), perceptually (e.g., if repetitive or otherwise boring), financially (because of the low pay), logistically (e.g., distance from home or night shift) or socially (e.g., in virtue of being forced to work with people who are disliked).

Accordingly, depending on which way the job is “hard”, the energy required to suppress the activities you would prefer to be engaged can vary qualitatively and quantitatively.

As suggested, once we exit the domains of physics and (bio)chemistry, the concept of “energy” becomes very fuzzy and variable. However,  even in the context of the workplace,  physics provides a good “working definition”: “the capacity to do work”  (where “work” is defined as “F x D”, i.e., “force” multiplied by the “distance” over which it operates.  Replacing the physics-based concept of work with the workplace concept, viz., job-related efforts, a workable definition of workplace “energy” can be framed: Energy is “the capacity or willingness to do work—in the form of an effort”.

It’s not a bad interpretation.  For example, when you leave work, if you feel you have no energy, you may rightly be understood to be saying you have no capacity and/or willingness to do any more work, understood as further effort. This is clear and easily (dis)confirmed, without getting into technical tests to determine your ADP-ATP metabolic molecular conversion and Krebs energy cycle rates, glucose reserves, neuronal excitation thresholds or general stimulus sensitivity—this lattermost being an overlooked factor in a “lack of energy”.

Perceptual Shutdown vs. Behavioral Shutdown

Here, in the instance in which you simply are not responding to stimuli and stimulation, the idea is that if you cannot or will not respond to a stimulus, you may appear to lack energy, when in fact you are simply not responding to any additional stimulation or stimulation of a particular kind.  In this instance, the fatigue is another kind of “pseudo-fatigue”, because it is merely a kind of perceptual or sensory shutdown, not behavioral shutdown attributable to a lack of energy, in any sense of “energy”.

That noted, what are the implications for you and your fatigue management?

Real Fatigue and Pseudo-Fatigue Management

First, if you find yourself energized as soon as you leave work, the implication is that you are doing too many tasks that go against your natural inclinations, rather than jobs that require too much literal energy.  That means it may be worthwhile to take a look at those tasks to see whether they can be modified to better accommodate your natural predilections. On the other hand, if you still feel fatigued when you get home, the chances are greater that the job is in fact demanding too much of your general energy reserves, irrespective of how much or little you enjoy the various tasks your work entails.

That suggests that a reconfiguration of the job is less likely to be feasible when you still feel tired at home and that it may be smarter to find ways to reduce the energy required for performing your required tasks, rather than finding which ones are inhibiting your preferred uses of energy when you are energized upon returning to your home.

Clearly, if you are feeling fatigued after doing the kind of work you most enjoy, you are probably experiencing genuine fatigue. In this case, across-the-board energy reduction is more appropriate, because such persistent fatigue suggests that you are experiencing real, rather than pseudo-fatigue associated with general exhaustion, rather than simply not being able to do what you really prefer and enjoy doing at or after work.

If you are experiencing perceptual/stimulus shutdown as a form of pseudo-fatigue, try to reframe the impinging stimuli to boost your responsiveness to them by taking a break, assigning them higher priority, or in some way by making them more engaging. That will help “energize” your response to them and avoid the appearance of fatigue.

The Paradox of Pseudo-Fatigue

Perhaps the most paradoxical implication of all is that if you feel “fatigued” at work, but energized when it’s over, what you need to do is not decrease your energy expenditures, but to increase the amount of energy you get to expend at work, by doing what you really enjoy.

That’s lateral thinking at work: to avoid fatigue, expend more energy!

Read more in Stress Management

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).