Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

What Olympic athletes can teach us about managing stress

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

At times, Olympic athletes seem invincible, appearing calm and focused in the face of the biggest competitions of their lives. While elite athletes are admired for their physical and emotional strength, what often goes unnoticed are their challenges with stress and anxiety – challenges that many working Canadians also endure.

Understanding the parallel pressures affecting both athletes and employees can help us increase resiliency in the workplace.

Story continues below advertisement

Stress and anxiety can come from high expectations from a coach or boss including: pressure to meet goals and tight deadlines, mental and physical exhaustion from training or working long hours, pressure to succeed, and difficulty finding a balance between training, work and a personal life. These stressors can become overwhelming and have a negative impact on focus, engagement, and ultimately, performance.

Research has shown that mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and depressive episodes among athletes tend to be high, if not higher than the rest of the population, and can be particularly pronounced before, during, and after a major event like the Olympic Games. Research by Morneau Shepell shows a similar result in stressful work situations. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of Canadian employees who report struggling with stress symptoms also report that it impacts their work. Almost half (45 per cent) indicate they thought about leaving their company in the past six months due to stress.

Like an Olympic athlete's coach, employers have a major role to play in providing a meaningful framework of support and direction to employees who, like athletes, devote tremendous time and energy to achieve organizational goals. So, how can employers borrow from the elite athlete playbook and help employees cope and build resiliency in the face of stress? Here are three tips:

Encourage nutrition and fitness

Develop a set of eating guidelines to help your employees make healthy choices for team and client lunch meetings. These can be as simple as skipping the pizza, sugary drinks, and cookies and opting instead for hearty salads and fruit.

For office locations, provide opportunities to get up and move around throughout the day. Try offering standing work stations, promoting stair use, organizing walking/activity groups and making equipment available to employees (such as stability balls, mats, resistance bands, etc.). Good nutrition and exercise can improve one's frame of mind and focus, while providing immediate and long-term health benefits.

Incorporate unique wellness programs into the workplace

Story continues below advertisement

Bringing to life the parallels between sport and traditional workplaces, CAA South Central (CAA SCO) is blending the worlds of their employees and elite athletes with Morneau Shepell's Getting to Your Gold program. In this, employees have the opportunity to be coached, motivated and inspired by Canada's Olympians and Olympic hopefuls through motivational videos, blog posts and regular personal updates. CAA SCO has selected employees passionate about wellness to act as champions to encourage team members to take part in challenges, promote the benefits of the Getting to Your Gold program, and share their passion on an internal blog.

Many Canadian organizations are beginning to implement wellness programs. Providing a program that is easy to follow and fun can encourage higher levels of engagement and inspire employees to set and meet realistic goals that improve their overall well-being and ability to manage stress. Insights from workplace wellness programs also enable organizations to identify trends, understand where employees have improved in their health, and offer increasingly targeted wellness activities that achieve total health goals.

Acknowledge stressful situations and offer help

The best managers and coaches know when their team is overwhelmed. Watch for signs of stress in an employee such as irritability, tiredness, lack of motivation or an increase in absences from work. If you notice that an employee is displaying signs of stress, offer your assistance by showing that you are there to listen, shifting around work duties, or providing the number of the company's employee and family assistance program for counselling services.

Whether an elite athlete or an employee, we all deal with stress and pressure in our jobs. Employers who offer support and have a wellness game plan for their employees can achieve reduced stress and increased resiliency in their workplace. To accomplish this, there is a lot we can learn from elite athletes.

Patrick Cerullo is Senior Vice President, Global Operations, Employee Support Solutions at Morneau Shepell, a leading provider of employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs), human resources consulting and technology, and the Mental Health Partner of the Canadian Olympic Team.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.