An Olympian's guide to workplace health

Making wellbeing the foundation of high performance

An Olympian's guide to workplace health

by Jack Green, Double Olympian and Head of Performance at Champion Health

As the 2021 Olympics approach, it’s a timely opportunity to take a look at how workplace health is absolutely crucial to performance and wellbeing.

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. Ultimately, I realised that my main passion is wellbeing and wanting to help others. Now I am proud to lead on performance for national wellbeing platform Champion Health.

I strongly believe that wellbeing is the foundation of high performance. We are all high-performers and we’re all striving to be the best we can be. We’re also all human beings - we all have our wellbeing to consider.

For too long wellbeing and performance have been viewed as being on opposite ends of the spectrum, when in reality they go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. The question is: how do we bridge the gap between the two?

Throughout my time in elite sport, I learnt many lessons about the links between wellbeing and performance, but these lessons 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.

Here are my top tips and personal experiences of bridging the gap between wellbeing and performance in the workplace: 

1. Focus on the personal and the professional will thrive

My time in elite sport has taught me one thing above all others: a happy athlete is a fast athlete. Just as a happy athlete is a fast athlete, a content employee is a productive one.

Try as we might, we cannot fully separate our wellbeing from our professional performance. If you’re struggling in your personal life, then the effects of this will filter through to your professional life. This means that prioritising your work at the expense of your wellbeing is counter-productive.

Instead, we should be focussing on our wellbeing, to lay the foundations for high performance. This could be something as simple as making time for self-care every day or ensuring that you are getting enough sleep. Make sure you’re giving yourself the opportunity to thrive personally. If the human part of you is thriving, then the professional part of you will as well.

2. Measure yourself on effort, not results

It’s tempting to measure yourself constantly on results. For a long time, that’s all I measured myself by. The problem is that you’re unlikely to achieve your desired outcomes every day. For whatever reason, some days are just rubbish and you struggle to get going. When these days happen, you are almost certainly going to 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.

If you want to find this consistency, judge yourself on effort. Effort understands that you are a human being and that you don’t always have 100% in the tank.

People always talk about achieving, rather than just trying. If you’re trying your best and giving 100% effort, that’s enough on any given day, regardless of the result. If you can walk away at the end of the day, and know you gave it your all, then that day is a success.

When you achieve this consistency, your life will become a high-performance plateau.I learnt 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. I didn’t run because I wanted to, I ran because everyone expected me to. But external motivation is temporary. It comes and it 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 will guide and motivate 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, then I have some advice that I hope will help. Try and see your work as part of a greater purpose. See it 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. Failure is a non-negotiable part of success.

Fear of failure is just 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.
When something goes wrong, or you don’t perform as well as you’d like to, I’d encourage you to think in the same way. Rather than beating yourself up, 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 failing to prove that everything I had sacrificed was worth it, of how my competitors would perform. In short, fear of all the things I couldn’t control.

The fact is that we can’t control everything. I could have run my best race, and still been beaten, because someone else could have run faster.  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 will take away your ability to be the best version of yourself.  So, the 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, like 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-pressured environments.

6. There’s power in vulnerability

For a long time I saw vulnerability as weakness. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to feel certain things, like embarrassment or sadness. I’m just guessing here, but I’d imagine that some people, particularly those in leadership positions, feel the same.

I found that there were two major problems with this approach. Firstly, no-one is able to 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. Suddenly I could just be me. 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 bullet-proof. 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.

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