There is a certainly a great deal written about mental health at the moment and rightly so. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year and depression alone is estimated to result in over 200 million lost workdays yearly. Many, if not all businesses, have some form of mental health initiative to care for their employees but what is worrying however, is that in the 2017 Mental Health at Work Report, only 24% of line managers were found to have any training in mental health. You could argue that some of these programs are nothing more than a box ticking exercise, only available when an employee becomes stressed or unwell.
The Time to Change Campaign found mental health to be the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year. The overall cost to any organisation is huge and so the need to invest in mental health and resilience training is perhaps one of the most pressing issues at the moment.
It is vitally important for us all to feel like we have a voice as we need to break through the stigma around talking about pressure, stress and mental health. Experience tells me that stress from work can be hugely debilitating and often very lonely. Experience also tells me that the feeling of vulnerability can be difficult to share. Throughout my rugby career, I had many ups and downs and I have to admit that managing my emotions through those sticky periods was incredibly hard. Professional sport can provide the most amazing moments, yet in an instant, your world can come crashing down and it can take many years to get back to that feeling of contentment.
That feeling of loneliness couldn’t be more apparent when kicking at goal. Kick your goals, it’s expected. Miss them and expect a whole lot of negative scrutiny. In what is an amazing team sport, it remains the only individual skill that everyone else relies on you to perform well and it can be the difference between winning and losing.
In reality, the pressure that people and in particular leaders are under in business is exactly the same. Achieve your targets, lead your team to deliver results or create new products to gain a competitive edge…the pressure to perform in business can be just as lonely and clinical.
At times, my inner critic had a strong vice-like grip of my ability to think clearly under pressure and unfortunately, I was unsure of who to turn to for advice. My wife gave me unbelievable support through those moments but from a rugby point of view, there was always a feeling that if I shared my lack of confidence with my coaches, then it would affect my selection in the long run. By choosing to deal with it internally, I did not realise the long-term negative impact it would have on me both personally and professionally. It is only through being coached recently that I understand the importance of speaking out.
The question therefore is how? How is it possible to cope under immense stress and still come out of the other side smiling?
I don’t think there is an exact science to dealing with stress. It is only since I have retired from the game that I’ve been able to sit back and look at it from a different perspective. Without thinking about it in detail at the time, I believe there were several things that helped me deal with setbacks and I am sure they will resonate with you in a business capacity.
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES
One thing that always kept me in check was to make sure I controlled what I could. In a basic sense, that was pretty simple. I knew I didn’t become a bad kicker overnight, so I simply got myself back on the training field and went through the same processes that had got me there in the first place. I practiced again and again but made sure that each one was correct. I knew my approach, I knew what I wanted to feel and by practicing this, I started to regain some confidence.
I have touched upon this briefly already but by looking at this issue from another angle, I started to see the bigger picture. Results were important of course, but this was not a life or death situation, I wasn’t performing life-saving surgery, or I wasn’t on the battle field. Bringing a sense of reality to the whole situation was paramount to me coping. In a business sense, remember that everyone else will have their own sources of anxiety too so bear that in mind when chatting to others.
Rugby environments could often be brutal but whenever things did get tough, you could always rely on someone making a joke that would diffuse what seemed to be an awful situation. The bonds and friendships I were made were invaluable and I feel lucky to have met and befriended some amazing people along the way. As much as I cringe at the thought of some performances, it was those connections and friendships that actually impacted me in a very positive way.
The final piece in the jigsaw was mental preparation. In short moments, I would imagine myself performing a kick on the biggest stage. What I was thinking, seeing, feeling and even breathing either before or after a kick. Being able to rehearse what I was trying to do became a regular occurrence and although there was no specific time in my diary to do this, it was an important part of my training week. If I knew that I had done everything that was required to perform at my best, it gave me huge confidence leading up to a game.
It is important to say that there is no substitute for experience. I look back at my road blocks and I certainly think I was better equipped to deal with them as I got older. Certain situations that once were stressful became the norm and as such, my resilience in overcoming these grew.
The key thing to note is that we are all incredibly resilient and we only know how resilient we are once we have been subjected to a major stress in our lives. It can come in many different forms and we all have our ways of dealing with it. Ask for help, surround yourself with people you trust and don’t be afraid to share your challenges. I guarantee you will feel better for it.