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Keeping key performers at peak


Adrenal fatigue and burn-out are very real biological conditions, especially amongst high flyers, but despite the problem of stress at work being documented for a long time, healthcare professionals are still taking a curative rather than preventative approach. So how can organisations get the most from their employees in a long term, sustainable way?

The Fox and the Hounds

Think of a fox in the wild, being chased by a pack of hounds and driven to the very limits of its physical and mental capacities just to survive. Like the best executives, foxes are sharp, agile and quick thinking but unlike humans ruminating under stress, a fox will sleep soundly at night due to their ability to live only in the present. At night, the fox will enter a deep recovery mode where hormonal, cardiac and nervous systems work in sync to rid them of cortisol and adrenaline and allow their bodies to rebuild depleted glucose and energy stores for the next day. Imagine if humans could do the same!

Be A Fox In The Workplace

Like a fox, humans also have autonomic nervous system states - fight or flight and rest and digest - and hormonal systems that work together with the brain and heart to orchestrate responses to threats when needed. Critical to our ancestors’ survival but less so to ours in the 21st century, these systems remain as well tuned as ever but seem to misfire with increasing regularity, causing havoc to our ability to function consistently at work. The problem is, if we spend too much of our time on high alert, we impair the brain’s ability to think clearly or act as a brake on our instincts. The chemicals we produce to combat stress don’t switch off as they were designed to.

Development from the Inside-Out

Allostatic load, or ‘wear and tear on the body’, accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic mental or physical stress. If athletes require recuperation after training and an understanding of recovery windows to benefit from certain types of activities, why should executives be different? Why should organisations assume, because the work is not physical in nature, that their executives can continue to work 14-16 hours every day, placing huge stresses on their biological systems with no recuperation? If organisations wish to preserve, lengthen and improve years of active service from key people, HR and development teams must push to create strategies to maintain energy, positivity and a sense of wellbeing in the face of difficulty so employees can recover and subsequently show up brilliantly every day.

Here Comes the Science

The best coaching programmes of the future should start by evaluating, then improving, the performance of the body’s functional systems before any more “rational” coaching goals are addressed. Stress levels, specifically the balance of DHEA (the vitality hormone) and Cortisol (the stress hormone), can be deduced with a simple saliva test but in conjunction a high-grade technology can further test an individual’s heart rate variability, energy supply and cognitive function, in other words, how they are “showing up”. This will give an overall picture of how much time someone spends on high alert, the biological cost of their working day, where they “leak” energy and how quickly their body recovers after stress. Used extensively in elite sports coaching this technology has good applications for performance coaching in business.

The Vagus nerve is a major cranial nerve which links the brain to critical organs. It orchestrates how someone can move from state of threat to balance as quickly as possible. In his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, John Coates offers the idea that we might learn from sports performance science to improve vagal tone in workers by toughening their physiology and learning to regulate the resultant emotions they produce. But how?

Well, we think we need to go a step further. For any development to work, we need to get to the root causes of systemic imbalance, which are as numerous as they are varied. They might be dietary, lifestyle or sleep-related, they could be genetic, hormonal or a combination of all these. Measuring functional readiness for task using biodata and then working with experts on nutrition and hormonal health will ensure the individual creates a stable platform for the development work that follows, whether learning how to influence, negotiate, lead themselves and others or win more business.

If there are 50 coaching conversations we could have, robust physiological profiling at the start of a coaching programme helps us identify the most useful and relevant ones to have to help that individual obtain the biggest wins in the shortest time possible.

Solutions for all

For those critical levels where individual executive coaching programmes for large numbers may not be feasible, a series of workshops can provide insight into how our bodies create stress, emotional states and moods, and in turn how that affects the quality of our behavioural output, thinking and problem-solving ability. Specific tools and techniques will help your people become more aware of their physiological and emotional states, warning signs when things might be out of balance and places they can go for help. More widely, organisation-wide awareness campaigns should focus on body / brain balance, stress resilience, easy hacks for wellness improvement, health questionnaires and signposts for further resources.

In a data-saturated world where everything is reduced to soundbites, we maintain that a little real education goes a long way. In our experience most people are unaware of the factors that make them feel they’re “on it” one day and not the next. Our hope is that in time all development processes, from leadership teams down to broader cohorts, will start to integrate physiological profiling so your people can understand, perhaps for the first time, what the biological cost is of their work rate and how they might put in place simple changes that radically improve their chances of becoming better every day in their jobs. After all, if you feel good, you think good.


James Parsons