Governments all over the world have put in place several measures to fight the spread of COVID-19. The crisis is putting pressure on employers and workers to observe new practices within a short period, such as physical distancing and increased sanitation. Businesses considered to be non-essential have also suspended their work and organizational activities.
When the way people work changes overnight, workplace managers' top priority is to implement emergency procedures and communicate new guidelines to the board of directors down to the customers. But COVID-19 has displaced many workers, from service professionals to unskilled labor in industries that temporarily shut down. As leaders and business owners, how can employers respond to their workers' needs while the world strives to keep business as usual?
Ken Van Someren, a sports physiologist and thought leader in human health and performance, talks about making decisions using science to deliver high performance for athletes and businesses. He also shares lessons on how to apply insights from elite sports to drive business performance.
Ken is the owner of KvS Performance, a performance innovation consultancy that works with clients in sports and business. Taking the winning formula of elite sport, Ken helps companies optimize performance and supports health and wellness product innovation. As the Performance Director of Boost Cognition, he helps build sustainable, high-performance solutions to enhance workplace productivity. He also emphasizes the importance of mental resilience in influencing behavior.
Working with elite athletes and high-performance sports professionals has taught Ken everything he knows about enhancing holistic productivity. As a former world-class kayaker, Ken says businesses can learn a lot from sports. Whether individually or in teams, developing a performance culture is necessary for achieving a goal.
Employers naturally want to focus on and improve their company culture, defined as a set of behaviors that designs how things are done in an organization. Under pandemic circumstances, most companies will feel as if they are start-ups once again as they struggle to keep their businesses afloat. A change in mindset is critical if the traditional workplace is to survive COVID-19 while anticipating significant obstacles that can arise.
Ken notes that the science of measuring performance isn't new for businesses. The study of organizational behavior dates back to the early 20th century, from classical management theories popularized by Frederick W. Taylor, also called the father of scientific management.
Ken thinks a high-performance culture is not only about how people work but also what they do to keep themselves performing.
“By and large, the science is well ahead of practice and what people are doing,” Ken says. “It is how we apply it and how we make it stick to make that difference.”
Following Taylor's work in the late 1950s, several researchers began examining the effect of humanistic values on organizational behavior. Does the human experience impact how an organization operates? How can a business handle change that leads to positive outcomes?
Ken argues that the main reason why employees are underperforming is because of stress. “Whether we are coping with it or not, most of us will adapt positively while others will struggle more,” Ken surmises.
Based on what he's seen, there are four different types of people who are experiencing stress at varying levels.
1. People who have a comfortable space and are loving the situation based at home.
2. People who live in a small apartment with no dedicated workspace, feeling incredibly isolated and missing face-to-face engagements with colleagues.
3. People with young families who begin to homeschool their kids, feeling overwhelmed by performing a new job they didn't ask for.
4. People who used to have healthy lifestyle habits tied to the workplace such as going for yoga at lunch or to the gym after work.
What Ken's examples have in common is the acknowledgment of physical space and how it benefits workers.
“The challenge is, how can we create a workspace that allows us to focus?” Ken asks.
With so many distractions and conflicting responsibilities, workers demand change that benefits them so that they can survive.
In 1936, Hans Selye at McGill University conducted research explaining the General Adaptation Syndrome, which states that stress, when perceived as a threat, might be debilitating if it is continuous. It consists of three stages.
∎ The alarm stage is akin to the fight-to-flight response, and the body mobilizes resources to react when stress is first recognized.
∎ The resistance or adaptation stage is when forces are built up in the body when the detected stress is enduring. In this stage, the body adjusts its cellular structures and enzyme levels to produce added protection against the stressor. A significant part of this stage is rest and recovery; hence, athletes and coaches focus on it just as much as hard training.
∎ The exhaustion stage sets in when long-term stress is not eliminated, and it is likely to cause death if the body is incapable of overcoming the threat.
Ken illustrates how a hard training session will impact an athlete. “If we impose stress at a given point of time to an athlete, we will get a period of fatigue, and then we will get a period of adaptation where the athlete's functional capacity comes back to beyond where it was.”
The concept applies to a larger group as well. Societies worldwide have adapted to the “new normal,” one that requires following a set of safe work practices to limit exposure to COVID-19. The first stage occurred when the World Health Organization raised the alarm on the epidemic, followed by resistance upon its elevation to a pandemic, prompting travel restrictions and border controls. If scientists fail to provide a vaccine in time, the collective stress felt worldwide will bring entire communities to a final exhaustion stage.
“Our body is incredible at adapting to physiological and mental stress. It's how we survive. It's how we've evolved,” Ken says. An athlete wants to eliminate competitors to win a championship. An employee, on the other hand, wants to reduce the risk to survive a pandemic. “This is why athletes train," he says.
Like athletes, is it possible for employees to benefit from training programs to develop their resilience?
“I think the important thing in all of this is how we cope with uncertainty,” Ken answers. He believes COVID-19 has shown all the gaps and opportunities to solve problems better. Applying high-performance philosophies in business works because, just like athletes, managers also experience job-related stress commonly caused by demands and pressure from either within or outside the workplace environment.
Stress can cause an impact on an individual mentally and physically, thereby decreasing employee efficiency and job satisfaction. Negative pressure, or distress, is often part of activities that are perceived to be inescapable or that aren't freely engaged in. When working with athletes, Ken prepares their mindsets for change. He believes people will have a hard time with this first step if they're not already physically, emotionally, and mentally fit.
“It is a huge stressor. Most of us will adapt very positively to it while some will struggle,” Ken says.
A 2018 expert statement published by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) examined the immediate environment's role in developing resilience. Dr. Mustafa Sarkar implemented a mental fortitude training approach underpinned by resilience-related theory and research focusing on three main areas (personal traits, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset) to enhance trainees' ability to withstand pressure. Instead of being considered a fixed quality, the study viewed resilience as a capability that can be developed over time.
In a society that has created many conditions for chronic stress to exacerbate, people have started to suffer from stress-related illnesses. Time pressures, work pressures, relationship pressures, noise, insecurity, crowding, violence, achievement pressures, and even education-related pressures have become more prevalent under COVID-19 circumstances. How can workers and employers deal with distress?
Coaches create an environment where athletes can thrive as both a person and a performer. In particular, the context in which a player grows and develops is just as important as the player himself, if not a little bit more. Like a plant that fails to bear fruit, we fix the amount of light, water, and soil needed for it to grow.
According to Dr. Sarkar, developing resilience and positive performance requires two fundamental notions placed in a matrix:
• Challenge involves setting high expectations to instill accountability and responsibility.
• Support refers to enabling people to develop their personal qualities, promote learning, and build trust.
Following this model, workplace leaders can develop any of the four identified environments:
∎ Stagnant environments (low challenge, low support)
∎ Unrelenting environments (high challenge, low support)
∎ Comfortable environments (low challenge, high support)
∎ Facilitative environments (high challenge, high support)
Different features characterize each environment, but for resilience to develop for sustained success and well-being, a facilitative climate must be created and maintained. If too many challenges and not enough support are in place, then the unrelenting environment will endanger well-being, resulting in stress.
Leaders and business owners are considering the impact of returning to work with questions regarding social responsibility, health, and safety. What should be society's top priority?
Ken thinks waiting for the old normal to come back is counterproductive. “While we wait for that date, we are going to lose an awful lot of time and effort worrying. And that is going to take a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being as well.”
Ken proposes that high performance can exist in any workplace fostering the right kind of environment. Building resilience toward personal, economic, and social stressors is an essential indicator among workers. Furthermore, once employers understand that performance isn't just about the outcome, workers can contribute to a company culture that is open, safe, and productive.
You must be logged in to post a comment.