What health and wellbeing lessons can employers learn from professional athletes?


Need to know:

  • Employers can implement resilience training to educate employees on how to cope with mental and physical stress.
  • Encouraging recovery time and regular breaks during the working day can help employees optimise their productivity.
  • Line managers can align themselves to sports coaches to signpost health and wellbeing interventions to employees where needed.

England won 136 medals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April 2018, ranking second out of the 71 countries that competed, according to Commonwealth Games England.

With inspiration splashed over television screens and the national press, employers taking a leaf out of professional athletes’ books when it comes to employee health and wellbeing may be on to a winner.

But how can employers incorporate athletes’ teachings around recovery and maintaining good health into their health and wellbeing strategy, to ensure staff remain fit for work?


Professional athletes have to be physically and mentally resilient to reach the top of the podium. Equally, employees need to demonstrate resilience in order to cope with various stressors, such as organisational change, digital information overload and high-pressure working environments. Ashleigh Wallace, head of wellbeing at mentoring and diversity organisation Moving Ahead, and physiotherapist for Team GB at four Olympic Games, says: “[Organisations] should be encouraging staff to try and break that [digital information overload] because I think that leads to mental fatigue. When [employees are] really tired, [they] become less resilient.”

Andy Magill, head coach at Vitality UK, adds: “The stress can’t go away, it’s ultimately how fit and how resilient employees are and how prepared they are to be able to handle it.”

One option is to offer resilience training, says Vanessa Sallows, benefits and governance director, group protection, insurance at Legal and General. This can be delivered by specific providers or as an additional service attached to certain private medical insurance (PMI) arrangements, group income protection policies or employee assistance programmes (EAPs). One lesson from resilience training is how to prioritise, structuring a working day to facilitate taking regular breaks.

“It’s not about getting rid of stress; it’s about helping staff build a capacity to cope with it,” explains Wallace. “Whether it’s a mental capacity or a physical capacity, they’re building the capacity to deal with the stressors of work, and then crucially, which I think is the biggest lesson we can learn from sports, making sure they have the recovery time.”

Recovery as part of wider wellbeing

Some individuals may associate recovery with annual leave, but employers should focus on day-to-day recovery, says Wallace. “[Employers] can’t expect [employees] to come and be at their absolute ‘A’ game day after day without proper recovery,” she says.

An organisational culture that empowers employees to take regular breaks throughout the working day is vastly beneficial, adds Legal and General’s Sallows. This approach mirrors a typical athlete’s training regime of high intensity days mixed with lighter training days or rest days. “They know the body can only work at its maximum peak for a set period of time. It then needs to recover and rest, and that’s exactly the same in the working environment,” she adds. “We are at our peak psychologically when we have had a rest.”

Employers should encourage employees to be active during these breaks, going for a walk or at least leaving their desks, adds Sallows. “Some interventions are really simple in that it is all about moving the body more,” says Wallace. “We have been designed and created to move and we don’t do that enough.”

Practical steps

According to research by CV Library, published in October 2017, 73% of employees think that sleep deprivation affects their ability to stay focused at work. In addition, just under half (47%) believe it impacts their ability to deal with challenging situations. Employers which consider components such as sleep and diet as part of their approach to wellbeing can, therefore, help staff be more resilient.

This can be achieved through education, says Sally Gunnell, managing director at corporate wellbeing provider Sally Gunnell Health and Wellbeing. This might include providing information on how to create a healthy sleep routine and environment, nutrition and hydration tips or advice on recovering from jetlag.

Employers could also run talks, seminars or workshops, or host consultations with nutritionists or in-house chefs to further equip employees with information. Employee-led focus groups can also be a way to initiate important conversations around mental health.

Providing free fruit and vegetables that employees can take home is another way to help maintain healthy habits, adds Magill. “Providing support and education around a food of the month or vegetable of the week, so that employees are leaving work with ideas in terms of actually what can they do [while] they’re at home to continue the positive habits.”

These measures should be combined as part of an integrated strategy, avoiding ad-hoc standalone initiatives, according to Wallace. “We used to have a lot of support around the athletes, but everyone worked in silos,” she says. “Really what we tried to do after 2012 was try and bring in a system where we integrated all of those. The approach definitely has to be more integrated and not just single offerings.”

Knowing the numbers

Blood pressure and glucose levels can impact how employees feel during the course of the working day, explains Wallace. Understanding these biological cycles can help employees schedule in suitable times for recovery. Flexible working hours could be another way to accommodate recovery time during the day.

“It’s about self-awareness,” explains Gunnell. “An athlete [would] know what [their] heart rate is. As a corporate athlete, have [employees] had [their] health checks? Do [they] know what [their] blood pressure is? It’s no different.”

With this in mind, employers should consider providing regular health checks for their staff.

Monitoring the individual

To ensure health and wellbeing interventions are tailored, employers should consider the use of questionnaires and wearable technology, such as activity trackers, to help empower employees to take responsibility for their own health, says Wallace. For example, a questionnaire around sleeping patterns can help employees understand their specific sleep issues. This knowledge, combined with data insights, can then be used to help personalise health and wellbeing interventions.

“If [employers are] going to be serious about an intervention, instead of just saying ‘let’s put on a sleep workshop’, actually if [employees have] got a really good sense that [they are] only getting five hours sleep a night, whatever intervention [employers] put in can be targeted to the individual,” explains Wallace. “What we absolutely do with the professional athletes is manage them individually, and that’s where I think we need to see the shift.”

Leaders as coaches

The relationship between a professional athlete and their coach is a vital one, especially when it comes to assisting with training and recovery. Line managers can mirror this supportive, trust-based relationship; they often interact with their team members on a daily or weekly basis, and are well placed to spot whether individuals are struggling, and to have honest and transparent conversations with staff.

“The line manager should align themselves with a coach,” says Sallows. “If [they have] got that wider understanding and awareness of [their] employees, [they] can pick up signs of issues or illness before even [the employee is] aware of it, particularly in mental illness. That often is a case where you’ve got individuals coming in with poor sleep, you’ve got memory issues, they’re overtired. Often, individuals’ line managers can actually pick that up, having really honest one-to-ones with individuals, not just about the performance in so far as the productivity, but their performance as a person and how they’re feeling.”

In addition, current and former professional athletes can themselves be used as positive role models to front health and wellbeing campaigns. “Athletes have specific skills and experiences that the average person has never really tapped in to, to that degree,” says Vitality’s Magill. “I think athletes can be seen as aspirational characters. [Employees] can still take the same learnings from them and apply that to day-to-day life.”

Although the professional sports world may seem to be light years away from typical working environments, coaches who support their athletes to achieve sustainable good health provide an applicable lesson for all workplaces. As Wallace concludes: “It’s that cycle of stress and recovery, which I think is why we should be looking at health and wellbeing, and why we should master that because ultimately, you get [employees] that are performing at their best for a higher percentage of the time. Which is exactly the same as what we try and do with athletes.”

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