I strongly believe that wellbeing is the foundation of high performance. For too long wellbeing and performance have been viewed as opposite ends of the spectrum, when in reality they go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
With the backdrop of the Tokyo Olympics, it’s a timely opportunity to explore how workplace health is absolutely crucial to performance and wellbeing.
Throughout my time in elite sport, I learned many lessons about the links between the two. I was very fortunate to be a professional athlete and represent Great Britain at two Olympic Games. But during that time I struggled with my mental health and was ultimately diagnosed with depression, bipolar tendencies and anxiety. The journey I have since been on – including therapy, a return to sport and becoming a mental health ambassador – changed my outlook on life. Now, I am proud to lead on performance for national wellbeing platform Champion Health.
But the lessons I’ve learned don’t just belong on the running track: they apply to every human being, in every role they play, be that as an employee, a colleague, a parent, or a friend. These are my top tips for bridging the gap between wellbeing and performance in the workplace.
1. Lay the foundations
Elite sport taught me one thing above all others: a happy athlete is a fast athlete. Similarly, a content employee is a productive one.
We can never fully separate our wellbeing from our professional performance. If you’re struggling in your personal life, it will filter through to your professional life. This means that prioritising your work at the expense of your wellbeing is counterproductive. Instead, we should focus on our wellbeing to lay the foundations for high performance. This could be as simple as ensuring that you’re getting enough sleep.
If the human part of you is thriving, the professional part will as well.
2. Achieve consistency
It’s tempting to measure yourself constantly on results. For a long time, that’s all I did.
The problem is that, for whatever reason, some days you just struggle to get going and will perform below your peak. Therefore, if you measure yourself only on results, you may have some highs but you’re also guaranteed to have some lows as well. These fluctuations make it impossible to stay consistent, which is what high performers are always striving for.
To find this consistency, judge yourself on effort. Effort understands that you are a human being and you don’t always have 100% in the tank. If you’re trying your best and giving 100% effort, that’s enough on any given day, regardless of the result. I learned this from training with some of the best athletes that have ever lived. They were not superstars every day. They were just consistently showing up and giving it their all.
3. Find your why
Being honest, for a long time I only ever ran for external validation. Not because I wanted to, but because everyone expected me to. However, external motivation is temporary. It comes and goes, and it won’t keep you going when things get tough.
What keeps you going during the hard times is doing things that align with your values – with your why. This guides and motivates you to do the things that matter to you the most, enriching your life and improving your overall wellbeing.
My personal why is to help people, and I’m very fortunate that my roles within coaching and Champion Health allow me to do that.
However, I’m aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to have a job that directly aligns with their why. If this applies to you, try and see your work as part of a greater purpose, as a vehicle to help you do other things that align with your why. That’s how I viewed my last few years as an athlete: I didn’t find running around a track fulfilling anymore, but I knew that doing so would give me opportunities to follow my why in other ways, like coaching and keynote speaking.
4. Fail forwards
Fear of failure is a fear of learning. I never wanted to fail, so I just avoided the situations where I might. I told myself I didn’t need to do those things, but in reality I was just scared of getting something wrong – of failing.
Now I understand that failure is not a threat – it’s a challenge. It’s an opportunity to learn.
Rather than beating yourself up when something goes wrong or you don’t perform as well as you’d like to, concentrate your efforts on learning from the experience. Reflect on what went wrong and how you can try to stop it happening again.
Then you’ll start to fail forwards. You’ll learn from the experience and use that knowledge to improve. As a leader, encourage your team to view failure in this way as well. Build a thriving culture, where employees are using failure to drive continued improvement.
5. Control the controllables
When I look back on the London 2012 Olympics, all I remember feeling is fear. Fear of not living up to expectations, of how my competitors would perform. In short, of all the things I couldn’t control.
The fact is, we can’t control everything. I could have run my best race and still been beaten. All I could control was how I ran, but I let fear of what I couldn’t control stop me doing that. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to perform to my best.
Worrying about things you can’t control is not only exhausting, it takes away your ability to be the best version of yourself. So, next time you’re nervous about something going wrong at work, try and focus on what you can control. Focus on what makes you a high performer and the things you can control to make that happen, such as your attitude towards work, or the steps you take to prioritise your wellbeing. By doing this, you will give yourself clarity and increase your ability to perform in stressful or high-pressure environments.
6. Find the power in vulnerability
For a long time I saw vulnerability as weakness. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to feel certain things, such as embarrassment or sadness. I’m just guessing here, but I’d imagine that some people, particularly those in leadership positions, feel the same.
Two major problems with this approach are, firstly, no-one can feel some things and not others. It’s all or nothing, so by blocking out sadness and embarrassment, I was also blocking out happiness and joy. Secondly, you can’t escape those feelings forever. Sooner or later one of them will sneak in. When that happened to me, I had no tools to be able to deal with it. I’d end up in a really bad place. Allowing myself to be vulnerable changed everything. I realised that I’m human, just like everyone else.
So, when you’re experiencing challenging emotions, don’t block them out. Sit with them, feel them, accept them. Talk to others at work about how you’re feeling, whether that be your colleagues, your manager, or just someone that you can trust. Once you do this, you’ll find that those feelings hold much less power over you.
As leaders, there’s no need to pretend you’re bulletproof. If you’re struggling with your mental health, make sure you confide in someone as well. If you want to play your part in driving a compassionate culture throughout your organisation, open up to your teams about times when you have struggled. By doing so, you can empower your employees to do the same.
Jack’s full report, An Olympian’s Guide to Workplace Health, is available online.
If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, CMI has partnered with Kooth, the UK’s leading online mental health platform, to provide our members with a free, safe and anonymous space for online support and counselling. Find out more here.
Images: Shutterstock/fifg / Champion Health
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