Wellness programs have become cliched and meaningless, a checkbox to be ticked, even if they don’t necessarily result in greater wellbeing. I blame a culture of blanket programs that have little regard for personality differences.
The line “If you don’t have two hours to meditate, then all the more you need to find time to meditate”, is painfully cringeworthy. Don’t get me wrong, I advocate meditation. I’m simply painfully aware that it doesn’t work for everyone, and in some instances, can cause you to feel worse.
But this feels blasphemous to utter in an era where meditation is fetishised as The Miracle Bullet.
Then I had an illuminating conversation with my friend High Performance Coach, Vanessa Bennett, who coaches leaders and executives globally to maximise productivity and performance.
And so we wrote this article discussing why organisations need to switch to a High Performance Culture instead, to genuinely elevate their employees to thrive and perform, whilst also achieving wellbeing.
Performance and wellbeing aren’t a zero-sum game
According to Vanessa, most people think you can either have performance or wellbeing.
The truth is, if you want your employees to perform in a sustained way, leaders must make the choice of whether they want sustained high performance or high burnout.
This requires a paradigm shift, as we subscribe to the mythical equation that working harder = productivity. Meaning, we erroneously believe that high performance leads to high burnout. And that wellbeing, being the opposite of performance, is the antidote to burnout.
Vanessa explains that today, we have a compelling body of neuroscience and positive psychology research that underscores how we cannot perform sustainably if we continue down the old path, buried under the rubble from the machismo of more work and running on empty.
The Holy Grail of wellness doesn’t exist
Blanket wellbeing approaches do not work for everyone, and end up feeling more like a laborious time suck. Put simply, some people like yoga and spirulina, others prefer cross-fit and steak.
Similarly, in my psychology and coaching work, I emphasise the fatal flaw of forever obsessing over the next three-letter miracle formula— CBT, NLP, ACT, you name it. Think of it like your makeup kit— you can’t use a stippling brush to create a smokey eye.
A performance approach tailors to who you are
The Chinese proverb 削足适履 ushers the image of Cinderella’s stepsisters shoehorning their feet into the dainty glass slipper, but suggests that we cut off parts of our anatomy to fit in.
A scary thought?
If so, think about how many an organisational paradigm champion certain personality types. Perhaps this is similar to how schools are catered to middle-class, middle-ability students— we should be accustomed to it; but this doesn’t excuse how other types fall through the cracks. I remember fellow introverts wincing about how we are overtly told to act like extraverts. In other words, you are penalised if you aren’t neurotypical.
While we should learn to adapt and compromise in teams, ignoring neurodiversity is akin to expecting people to have a personality and neural transplant.
The beauty of a performance approach is that it helps you leverage your brain and personality to work for you, not against you, such as:—
- Attention span: Vanessa explains that when people understand their natural pace, they manage their energy better. This is trumps any generic time-management tool. “When someone isn’t working at their natural pace, they burn energy away”, she says. Slower-paced people work best on longer time blocks, so it’s best not to interrupt them or make them feel bad within today’s culture of instant digital gratification. ADHD-type personalities benefit from switching tasks— rather than multi-tasking— so they can re-energise and better focus. When organisations better understand the diversity of paces, we stop taking others’ reactions too personally. For instance, ADHD-type personalities may come across as rude as they try to rush others unintentionally.
- Energy levels: There are times in our lives when we will have lower energy levels. These include periods of travelling, sickness, personal crises and hormonal/seasonal fluctuations. The problem is, we feel bad about them, and beat ourselves up, triggering the cascade of stress hormones in our fear response system, burning up even more energy. Instead, these are the times where we need to give ourselves permission to slow down. I also advocate using supplements like Mito2Max* and AlphaCRS, which refuel our mitochondria— our cellular batteries. Vanessa notes that those who are better at managing their energy are always at an advantage to those who haven’t learnt how to. Think about it this way, “Athletes don’t win for wasting energy, only effective energy gets them a gold medal”.
- Introversion/Extraversion: Before Susan Cain wrote Quiet! The Power Of Introverts In A World That Cannot Stop Talking, many introverts felt as though there was something wrong with them. Today, more know that both personality types have very different ways of perceiving the world and rejuvenating. Introverts recharge from having alone time and function best in small groups. In turn, they are detail-oriented and great listeners. Leveraging these superpowers means that we need to create intentional space for introverts to thrive. Vanessa advocates providing meeting rooms and Work From Home Days for introverts to “get some solid strategising, creative and thinking time”. Similarly, I learned from my mentor Selena Soo that introverts can network effectively. Simply focus on forging selective meaningful connections and adding value— you don’t have to be a social butterfly.
- Sleep Personality: The idea of Night Owl vs Lark is outdated. Instead, Sleep Expert Dr Michael Breus expounds the importance of understanding both our sleep appetite and chronotype, in his book The Power Of When. Put simply, when to do something is key for optimum performance and energy management. As a Wolf, I manage my energy and master my time best by doing my creative work and taking hot showers at night. Similarly, my Wolf clients find that making their Sleep Personality work for them is better than shoehorning themselves into being a ‘morning person’ and then blaming themselves when that proves difficult.
When you care about performance, you also achieve wellbeing.
“The supreme quality of great men is the power of resting. Anxiety, restlessness, fretting are marks of weaknesses”— J.R. Seeley.
Positive psychology advocates that we need to be resilient, have hope and be optimistic, in order to thrive. However, it doesn’t tell us explicitly how to.
Enter The Science Of Recovery, a philosophy of sports psychology, which underpins Vanessa’s approach.
Vanessa comments that most people believe they should simply charge forward like a bull to the gate, giving more than they can. They eventually crash into a forced recovery, in the familiar forms of colds, flus and panic attacks. “Executives cannot justify recovery unless they are on their deathbed”, she muses.
Drawing from her expertise as a fitness instructor, Vanessa likens it to training for a marathon. “You can’t train 42km at pace everyday, you’ll get burnout, fatigue and hamstring problems. High-level athletes are taught that recovery is a productive part of their training plan. However, executives are not”.
Instead, downtime makes most of us feel as though we cannot justify our existence.
Vanessa explains that downtime doesn’t mean we twiddle our thumbs and update our Facebook statuses, especially when you’re unaccustomed to that idea. It may mean doing a lighter task, such as brainstorming or researching.
Taking it a step further, researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang regales with the tale of how Eisenhower would escape to Telegraph Cottage where he “played golf, read cowboy novels, played bridge, went riding in nearby Richmond Park, and simply enjoyed the country”— the one thing touted to “save him from a mental crack-up”, according to his driver. Pang states categorically that it is “a necessity for people who want to do their very best work to be able to detach from their workplace”, because an organisation’s most talented and valuable workers are the likeliest to experience burnout. Breaks that high in relaxation, control, mastery experiences and mental detachment from work are “the equivalent of nutritious and nourishing meals; those that don’t are like empty calories”.
The lost Art of The Downtime must be reclaimed.
Being bespoke, performance is about efficiency
We need to be mindful about our mindfulness/wellness approach— is it yet another time-suck, does it fit with who we are, and does it really work?
I advocate a 3 Breath Meditation to all my clients.
It’s something I learned from my friends Tay & Val, Founders of M Meditation, a modern meditation movement designed for the busy millennial. It’s not about draping a massive scarf around your neck and sitting down for two hours, grappling with your wandering mind, whilst choking on incense.
Let’s face it, few have time for two hours of daily meditation. Often too, it’s become a competition amongst some meditation advocates, to shame others for not having meditation stamina.
Instead, three deep breaths— when done right— are enough to reset the amygdala, the fear center in our brain.
More importantly, too, we need to question if we are even breathing correctly.
Many clients share their frustrations with meditation classes. “I feel worse and more anxious”, is a common refrain. We uncover that when stressed, they aren’t breathing properly. So when told to ‘sit with their breath’ in a one-hour class, they suck in their breaths when they inhale, hyperventilating and therein feeling worse.
Being efficient means getting our first principles right— ensuring that we are filling our bellies with air when we breathe in.
Further, people often assume that therapeutic wellness approaches involve years of sitting on the couch, especially for people looking to tame their busy minds. Believing that we can ‘talk it away’, engaging in an Intellectual Bypass erroneously engenders a sense of helplessness as time passes and we don’t feel better. Instead, a performance approach understands that mental mastery involves uncovering the root of the issue, and releasing distress from our bodies. This way, transformation can be quick and thorough.
In today’s fetishisation of busy-ness, we don’t need wellness to become another checklist to tick, lest it feels like a luxury or another stressor.
Instead, we need simpler and sleek tiny lifestyle redesigns that yield powerful impacts.
You don’t have to breakdown into order to breakthrough
I remember an organisational culture where it was a badge of honour to come in sniffing and sneezing. It horrified me, especially when infections became prolonged during the cold winters.
Vanessa explains the difference between a Forced Recovery and a Managed Recovery.
The first is when we crash from overwork, and sadly that’s the only type of recovery we begrudgingly permit ourselves to have. The second is where recovery is respected as part of an organisation’s productivity plan.
Citing her time managing a finance team at Dimensional, she instituted a culture where her staff took time off when they felt the beginnings of an infection. To her, this was better than everyone falling ill for four days and spreading germs. As such, her team had the lowest level of sick leave.
From an economic perspective, absenteeism costs the US economy $150 billion. Shockingly, presenteeism— where employees show up for work but don’t perform at full capacity— costs a staggering 10 times more.
My friend Peter Shmock, 2x Olympian, also champions this ethos. He says that learning when to cut back is as important as learning when to give more, an integral lesson that brought him to Olympian level.
The intersection between wellness and performance
It is an outdated notion that Never The Twain Shall Meet when we think about wellness and performance. A blanket wellbeing program that doesn’t honour diversity becomes a time and energy suck— perhaps interesting initially, but quickly becomes forgotten.
In short, to motivate organisations to spend effectively and maximise gains from any wellness initiatives, the allure of heightened and sustainable performance might be the best Trojan horse. This way, staff learn their individual ways to rejuvenate their minds and bodies, whilst being able to perform phenomenally.
Because, performance breakthroughs come when you can master your mind and energy.