How Olympic sports science can address C-suite stress

Taking stress management cues from sports science can help board members remain calm when the pressure’s on

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Senior management often mistakenly endeavours to work harder and longer in order to achieve more, while keeping any pressure to themselves

Employee stress levels have risen by nearly 20 percent over the past three decades, according to a survey by management consulting firm Korn Ferry. To combat this epidemic, increasingly robust employee stress management strategies have been rolled out, with many focusing on wellbeing initiatives such as free gym memberships. Even governments have stepped in with legislative changes, such as limiting after-hours emailing.

There is precious little focus on the pressures facing those at the top. Yet for anyone leading a company, stress is natural – and when you consider the uncertain times ahead for European businesses, it appears inevitable.

To combat this issue, Track Record teaches Olympic sports science techniques to employees to help them deal with workplace stress. Olympic sports science offers plenty of lessons on how to defuse the ticking time bomb of C-suite stress. Olympic athletes meticulously plan the rhythm of their four-year cycles in order to build in periods of preparation, delivery and recovery. The journey toward each Olympic Games is less of a relentless marathon and more a series of high-intensity sprints, aimed at preparing mind and body to perform under pressure.

Understanding leadership stress
Stress is not always detrimental; it can engineer urgency and momentum. However, prolonged and unanticipated stress will inevitably impact the health and performance of C-suite professionals. With extreme pressure significantly impeding rational decision-making and creativity, stressed individuals often experience extensive performance deterioration and burnout.

To consistently perform their best, Olympians are taught to balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal in all aspects of life

To consistently perform at their best, Olympians are taught to balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal in all aspects of life. The most successful athletes recognise the importance of mental and physical recovery, placing just as much emphasis on this as training itself.

Business leaders can benefit from this mindset by learning to manage their energy across areas they can control and not letting external market forces impact their performance in the long term. They should audit how they currently spend their time and map this against their aspirations. This will help them assess whether they are being pulled into reactive activities, firefighting mini crises that arise throughout the day rather than tackling the more proactive, strategic tasks that a leadership role should entail.

Stress is unavoidable; leaders must recognise its significance and build habits to improve their recovery time. Setting email curfews in the evening, sticking rigidly to their remit on a project and ensuring they get quality sleep will all help. Assigning ‘cheat days’ where they can focus on the more proactive aspects of their role could help senior staff wean themselves off reactive troubleshooting.

Reclaim the negative
Negativity in business, when explored correctly, is essential, but confusing confidence with blind optimism should be avoided. Olympic athletes excel at the ‘pre-mortem’ approach, undertaking meticulous forward planning to consider every potential obstacle, from prospective injury to last-minute team changes.

Leaders must understand that engineering a resilient, confident culture requires acknowledging all potential negative outcomes and preparing for them in order to deliver results. This way, planning takes place in a calm and considered setting, meaning that when setbacks inevitably occur, leaders and their teams can respond effectively.

Stress dynamics
Senior management often mistakenly endeavours to work harder and longer in order to achieve more, while keeping any pressure to themselves. This is not a sustainable strategy, with the insular nature of the C-suite actually exacerbating stress.

Athletes often use an ‘accountability through declaration’ approach by announcing their ambition to change training habits to their team. This public intent increases accountability and the likelihood of committing and succeeding. This method is particularly powerful in teams or crews, when the collective can support the individual for the common benefit. Business leaders should be far more open about their own stress levels and signal how they intend to manage them.

Moreover, leaders should not only consider their own resilience, consistency of behaviour and sustainability, but the environment and culture they create for others. How long a boss spends in the office, how frequently they send after-hours emails and their approach to taking annual leave or lunch breaks will often be mimicked by a wider team. If staff echo behaviour that amplifies stress higher up in the organisation, the resilience of the organisation is likely to suffer.

The hardest part of stress management is often acknowledging when support is required. I work with C-suite professionals who consider themselves adept at coping with or even beating stress in their daily life. Often, once we gauge their physiological reaction to pressure with biometric technology, these leaders realise how little control they have over their own body. That lack of authority is disconcerting for anyone, but especially for C-suite professionals.

Company culture is passed down from the top, and instilling a resilient, confident leadership team can have a profound impact on the wider organisation. With uncertain times ahead, there is no better time to ensure organisations – and the people leading them – understand that stress is something that needs to be managed, rather than beaten.