Looking To The World Of Sports To Solve Workplace Burnout

By now, stress, burnout, and 24/7 connectivity have become accepted realities of the American workplace. And beyond the toll this takes on our health, the impact of working around-the-clock also has effects on companies and the bottom line. According to a Gallup study last year on the State of the American Workplace, 70 percent of Americans are disengaged from their jobs, costing upward of $500 billion in lost productivity.

One company is looking to the world of sports to help employees reengage, increase productivity and feel a sense of purpose.

Dr. Jack Gropple, Vice President of Applied Science and Performance Training at Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions, believes applying the principles used in training elite athletes can help increase employee engagement and in turn, the bottom line.

“Life today is where sports was 50 years ago,” Gropple told The Huffington Post. “50 years ago in sports, recovery was a sign of weakness. If you needed water, you were weak.” But in today’s workplace, “No one has taught us to have boundaries to hold sacred what is sacred. We walk through the door still checking texts - work life has entered the home.”

In a report called The Biology of Business Performance, Gropple draws comparisons between employees today and elite athletes in the 1960s. The report states that athletes in the 1960s pushed harder, trained longer and didn’t allow for recovery time. This caused anxiety, depression and injuries, which led to shortened careers and lifelong health issues.

Similarly, Gropple refers to employees today as living in a linear world at “a non-stop pace and go-go mentality where we are overscheduled and overcommitted with no rest or recovery in sight.”

In addition to anxiety and depression, employees resort to what the report calls “unhealthy decompression strategies” like watching too much TV, drinking alcohol, eating comfort foods, taking recreational drugs and other mindless activities. Employees can also display negative behaviors like impatience, uncooperativeness, defensiveness and frustration. The result is bad for both the individual and the bottom line -- burnout, lack of productivity, low performance, lack of innovation and poor physical and emotional health.

These days, athletes know what to eat and drink, when to rest and how hard to train for peak performance. Dr. Gropple co-founded the Human Performance Institute with his partner Dr. Loehr based on the premise that employees can adapt the same practices as elite athletes for peak performance in the workplace.

Johnson & Johnson acquired the Human Performance Institute in 2008, and now all J&J employees are going through what is known as the Corporate Athlete Course offered by the Human Performance Institute.

Employees are taught that when they have no boundaries at work, it causes more stress with less recovery time -- they don’t have time to restore their energy. The philosophy of the course builds on a body of work that has linked physical activity with workplace productivity. For example, according to Dr. James Levine, an obesity specialist at the Mayo Clinic, the brain activity of a person who sits too long will actually start dimming, falling into what he calls a “slumbering state.” But doing something as small getting up out of a chair is all it takes to wake the brain from “hibernation mode.”

As for the specific connection to sports, Loehr noticed in the late 1980s that tennis players were able to recapture energy in a very short period of time between points. Within as little as 20 seconds, they were able to recoup small amounts of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy. Seeing that tennis players were able to recover in short spans, he wanted to see if it was also possible generate energy in short spans.

Johnson & Johnson has commissioned studies to learn more about ways to boost employee engagement. In one called The Power of An Energy Microburst, Johnson & Johnson found expanding people’s energy through physical action did help them feel more engaged at work and at home. On average, participants reported that their energy levels tripled immediately after spending five minutes on a mini-stepping machine or walking up and down the stairs. Now, J&J gives employees various tools to restore energy, like keeping small hand weights in conference rooms so that employees can exert some physical activity during meetings.

Physical action isn’t the only way to expand energy, Gropple notes. Mental, emotional and spiritual activity can also have a positive effect on energy. For instance, he says calling a family member in the middle of the day can do more to increase energy than drinking a cup of coffee.
And Dr. Gropple offers some advice for re-energizing yourself if you receive what he calls an “emotional hit in the face” at work:

“It would be unhealthy to wear the problem on your sleeve. Your brain can’t focus if you’re resentful or angry. But no one will ever challenge you if you say you have to use the restroom. Use the time to re-wire what happened in your brain - clear the computer of what just happened and disengage from the negativity.”

This post is part of a series highlighting companies that aim to improve employee well-being. If you would like to recommend a company or share the story of how a workplace well-being program helped you, please email us at