What Are the HALT Risk States?
Understanding the Risks of Working on Empty
Do you ever feel like you're "running on empty" at work?
Maybe you skipped breakfast before working on a big presentation, or you struggled to speak up in a meeting after only a couple of hours' sleep. Perhaps you're emotionally exhausted because you feel like you just don't "fit in."
If so, you've probably encountered the HALT risk states.
HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. The model was first developed to help addicts in recovery see when they were most vulnerable to relapse. Since then, it's been useful for other people, too – both in the workplace, and in their personal lives.
This article examines when you need to "call a HALT," and how to act quickly on the warning signs.
What Are the HALT Risk States?
If you keep trying to work when you're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, your performance will almost certainly suffer. You may harm your physical and mental health, and you're at risk of damaging your relationships. You'll also be more susceptible to burnout.
The word "HALT" is significant. It's a wake-up call to stop what you're doing and think about some key aspects of your well-being – and to change harmful habits.
The four risk states are interrelated. For example, you may have heard the word "hangry" to describe someone who's irritable (or worse) through lack of food. "Slangry" is also starting to appear – describing a person who's grumpy after a bad night's sleep.
But each of the four HALT states can be a serious problem on its own.
How to Spot the HALT Signs
To respond to the HALT risk states, the first step is to recognize them. This means becoming more aware of emotions and behaviors – your own, and those of the people you work with.
Developing your emotional intelligence can help you to notice when you're feeling isolated within your team, for example, or the times when you've lost your "get up and go." It also lets you spot these feelings in others.
Journaling your experiences, thoughts and feelings is a good way to keep track of any potential problems. You can monitor the amount of sleep and exercise you're getting, as well as whether you're eating regularly and healthily. Use your journal to help you spot patterns of negative feelings or behaviors – and clues about what's causing them!
You can also practice mindfulness, to help you become more self-aware. Mindfulness has been shown to develop emotional intelligence. It's a way of observing your thoughts and feelings without getting "carried away" by them.
If you think a colleague is struggling because of one or more of the HALT states, talk to them, sensitively and in confidence. This might require a difficult conversation, but getting the issue out into the open is the first step toward resolving it.
Dealing With the HALT Risk States
In this section, we'll look at the four HALT risk states in turn, and suggest some practical ways of addressing them.
When you're hungry, you're less able to concentrate on your work, and more likely to be distracted. You're probably more tetchy, too!
Eating a good breakfast is important for beating hunger during the rest of the day. According to research, a regular, balanced breakfast helps us to maintain a healthy metabolism. Another study shows that people who skip breakfast tend to have poorer diets overall.
Try to eat within two hours of waking, and then have something healthy every three or four hours after that. This can help to prevent changes in mood, including outbursts of anger, by keeping your blood sugar level stable.
Eating regularly and healthily also helps you to stop snacking on high-fat, high-sugar foods. These can depress your mood, and they're linked to obesity and other health concerns.
Example: Skipping Breakfast
Maya's long commute means that she regularly misses breakfast. As a result, she finds it hard to keep her energy levels up, and she's often distracted. She also binges on unhealthy, sugary snacks, and that's just making the problem worse.
Her manager, Jen, suggests that Maya takes advantage of the company's flexible working policy and starts her shifts a little later, to give her time for a better breakfast before she comes in. Jen also asks the Human Resources manager whether simple, nutritious breakfast foods can be made available in the office.
There are times when anger is absolutely the right response. For example, it's natural to be angry if we're criticized unfairly – and feeling this way can inspire us to take action and to solve problems.
But if you can't control your anger, it can damage your relationships, and cause you and others stress. Research shows that it can even have a negative effect on your health.
Take time to understand what causes your anger, and to work out how to express it in a way that won't damage you or others.
You might find it helpful to keep a record of the things or people that trigger your anger. You can then reflect on whether or not your anger is justified, and take the "heat" out of the situation.
But don't simply suppress your anger. This can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, and it might actually increase your stress – which can cause long-term health problems.
Example: Unreasonable Behavior
Kenneth always seems to be in a rage about something or someone. Co-workers avoid him because of his angry responses to reasonable requests, and his behavior is affecting productivity and team morale.
His manager, Angelo, approaches him calmly and privately, and points out the negative effects his anger is having on the team. Angelo offers him his full support in addressing it, and suggests that coaching could be beneficial.
It's possible to feel isolated and lonely even when you're with other people, including colleagues, family members, and friends. Building high-quality connections with others is important to your sense of well-being, even if you're not a natural extrovert.
If you feel lonely, let your manager know. They may be able to involve you in projects or activities that make it easier for you to make connections.
Maybe your daily routine is causing you to retreat into your shell. If so, shake it up a little! Take lunch breaks away from your desk, where you can talk to people from other teams.
Some organizations have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), where you can share your skills and talents – and meet new people in the process. Take a look at our article, 8 Ways to Beat Loneliness in the Workplace, for more great ideas about feeling connected and getting involved.
Example: Making a Connection
Caleb has moved from the other side of the country to work for a new company, and he's struggled to build a network. He rarely talks to other people, and usually eats alone at his desk.
His colleague, Pia, invites Caleb to a social lunch with other team members and talks about her own work and family. Caleb loosens up a little and starts to talk to other co-workers about his interest in playing guitar. Hal mentions that he plays too, and the two make a connection.
In high-pressure workplaces, tiredness is often accepted as part of the job. Everyone is always in a rush and working long hours. You may feel under pressure to do the same.
However, fatigue can have a serious impact on your decision-making, your memory, and your long-term health.
Calling a HALT, and reviewing your sleep and working patterns, is vital when you're tired.
The amount of sleep we need varies with age, but the U.S. National Sleep Foundation's guidelines recommend between seven and nine hours per night for an adult. If you're getting less, you'll likely need to make changes to your routine to ensure that you get a good night's sleep.
The quality of sleep is also important. The brain only "recharges" properly through Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This high-quality sleep level can be hampered by drinking alcohol or caffeine-based drinks in the evenings, and by trying to deal with difficult issues late at night.
Screen use – including checking notifications on your tablet or cell – can also have a negative effect on your sleep. It's best to stop using screens an hour or two before you go to bed.
Taylor doesn't sleep well. She regularly takes work home, and often stays up late to get it finished. Then she wakes early to travel to work, and drinks a lot of coffee during the day to compensate. As a result, she's irritable and easily distracted.
Her manager, Kathy, is concerned that Taylor often seems tired and cranky. Kathy offers to review Taylor's workload so that she can get more sleep, and maybe try a later start time. She also points Taylor to a range of physical relaxation techniques, and asks whether Taylor might try decaf coffee!
Listen to our Book Insight podcast, Why We Sleep, to learn more about the dangers of missing out on good sleep.
HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired – four "risk states" that affect your mood and behavior, and can seriously damage your performance at work.
Learning to recognize these states, and understanding their impact, allows you to take action to prevent their negative effects.
If you're frequently hungry at work, review your eating habits, and make sure you have a proper breakfast. If you're often angry, log the incidents and address the causes. People who feel lonely should look for ways to build lasting, high-quality connections, both in and out of work. And getting enough high-quality sleep is vital for everyone's concentration, stamina, and long-term health.
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