Be a business athlete

In times of economic uncertainty and global complexity, what goes on in the boardroom should take inspiration from the sports field says Ed Chacksfield, Senior Consultant, Inspirational Development Group (IDG)

We work in a world of unprecedented change and opportunity due to the digital revolution.  Whilst undoubtedly giving us tremendous benefits in terms of interconnectivity, speed of communication and access to information, these advances have had many consequences, including unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety caused by an inability to switch off from our working lives. 

Our hyper-connected world has now created and embedded an ‘always-at-work’ culture. The lines between work and rest have been blurred by connected technology, and this has contributed to an increase in mental health issues. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated as far back as 2002 in a report called Mental Health and Work: Impact,Issues and Good Practices, that by 2020 stress (defined here as an inability to cope with perceived pressure) and depression would be the major source of ill health globally.

Says Dean Becker, CEO of executive coaching firm Adaptiv Learning Systems, ”More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience determines who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

Leaders who want to survive and thrive in such an operating environment need therefore to think like a ‘business athlete’ and develop a resilient mindset, consisting of both mental and physical discipline. Personal resilience, like any other skill, can be learnt and developed through effortful thought and practice.

The Oxford English dictionary defines resilience as, ”The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness.” 

The key ingredients of resilience include the ability to adapt to stressful situations or crises; the ability to steer through everyday challenges more easily; the ability to roll with the punches or bounce back from adversity without lasting difficulties and being ready to reach out more frequently for challenges and experiences to fulfil one's potential.

Resilient people can deal with change more readily; from fundamental life-changing events to relatively incremental work-based changes.

The table makes a clear personal and business case for building one’s resilience.  This flourishing quadrant suggests a more expansive view whereby change may be viewed as an opportunity for personal growth and gaining new perspectives and skills. It’s a quadrant in which we are able not just to cope, but to actually thrive. What is clear is that we are able to be more resilient: the essential skills are quite ordinary. 

The latest thinking on personal resilience recommends a number of key approaches to bolster and build effective resilience:

Exercising Mindfulness

There is an increasing body of evidence that is now pointing to the efficacy of mindful practices in increasing mental flexibility, self-awareness and the ability to lead through complex situations. In their article 'How to Bring Mindfulness into Your Company' (Harvard Business Review), Reitz and Chaskalson point to three 'Meta-Competencies' of mindfulness developed through 10 minutes of mindful practice each day. The first is 'Metacognition, which is the ability to choose at crucial times to simply observe what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing.

It is like stepping out of a fast-flowing and sometimes turbulent stream onto the riverbank so you can actually see what’s going on. When you learn to do this, you can better see your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses for what they are.

The second 'Acceptance' refers  to the ability to let what is the case, be the case. It’s about meeting your experience with a spirit of openness and kindness to yourself and others.

Finally, 'Curiosity', means taking a lively interest in what has shown up in our inner and outer worlds. Without curiosity, we have no impetus for bringing our awareness into the present moment and staying with it.

Don't Look Down! Have a Digital Detox

Excessive smartphone use has certain parallels with addiction and overuse of smart phones has been linked to a number of long term health risks, including low self-esteem, poor interpersonal communication skills, and insomnia. Disrupted sleep patterns caused by constant cognitive arousal are costing businesses billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.

It is important therefore to practise healthy digital habits. This can include not checking the device before bed and even leaving it outside the bedroom. Make social time a digital free zone.  Take up hobbies that don’t require looking at a digital device repeatedly.

Sleep, Diet and Exercise

Most people admit to not getting enough sleep (WHO recommend 7-8 hours), eating too much refined sugar, drinking too many caffeine drinks and not taking 30 minutes of exercise every day. A healthy body and mind set a tone that can help build resilience to face challenges in a more productive manner. 

Sleep is a key factor in building stamina and reducing stress.  The most effective way of maintaining good sleep patterns is to go to bed and get up at exactly the same time every day and that includes Saturday and Sunday.  The body gets used to the predictability of this routine and responds accordingly.

To build resilience it’s important to understand and recognise how your own levels of energy and performance fluctuate.  What is it that you can do to prepare yourself mentally and physically during demanding periods of your life? This can range from clearing the diary of any potential late nights before an especially busy week, to maintaining hydration, taking exercise and enjoying non-work-related social time. Rest and recovery afterwards are also vital in restoring mental and physical resources.

Be aware that the longest time the mind can work at an optimum performance is between 90-120 minutes. These productive periods should be interspersed with short rest periods, and you should try to get completely away from work for a period of time each day.

Social Support

Social support refers to our personal relationships. As Donald Robertson points out in his book Build Your Resilience, “Research on resilience has generally pointed towards social support being the most important protective factor...probably the thing we know with most certainty.” Having interactions with those people who give you support, purpose and feeling connected drives perseverance through difficult times. For those coming back from significant trauma, the power of interconnectivity is cited in almost every case study.

The ability to talk things through, share your concerns, learn from positive role models and receive appropriate encouragement, all have a huge effect in reducing stress. 

The digital world in which we live and work offers wonderful opportunities for communication and collaboration. However, to thrive in this work environment we must develop an athlete’s sense of self-discipline and not only differentiate our work and our free time, but also mitigate the long term effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.

There are many elements that build resilience and no single method or skill works independently in its development and maintenance. We must work on as many of them as possible to succeed not only professionally but personally. The world is changing, and to build resilience we must commit to making some changes now.

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John Roussot - a personal account

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