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Manage your stress like an Olympian

Wednesday, 5 June 2019 10:54 AM | Health and wellbeing Personal development

Leon Taylor is an Olympic Silver Medallist in diving. He uses his experience from elite sport to deliver talks and workshops on a variety of high performance topics. He is passionate about mental health and in 2015 Sheffield Hallam University awarded Leon an honorary doctorate. Leon continues to collaborate with the University on their mental wellness strategy.


Why is stress such a big problem for business owners. And how do you encourage them to manage it?

Stress isn't just a huge problem for business owners. Stress is a huge problem for everyone.

The World Health Organisation recently defined stress as a global epidemic. So whether you're a business leader, a member of a team or you're just a human being, stress is here.

We spend most of our time overwhelmed and overstimulated by everything. We’re tired and exhausted and fatigued and unable to turn off. And that's one of the keys. If you're overstimulated all the time that can put you in a state of stress. If you stay in a state of prolonged stress, that's when we start getting into physical and mental problems.

In fact you know this is the source to all of our unwellness at the moment. No matter what age you are or where you are on the ladder. So it's a huge problem for business owners but it's a huge problem for everyone.

What one thing can entrepreneurs do today to improve their health and wellness?

You need to know what you're doing that works and what you're doing that doesn't work for you specifically. So in coaching I call it a habits inventory. It's a very simple exercise.

Step 1:
Write down all the things, your good habits, that are serving you and making you more resourceful. Then write down all the things which aren't.

Step 2:
Pick the one habit that's tripping you up the most. So let's say it's not getting enough sleep.

Step 3:
Once you've chosen that one thing, you then make a slight change but you make it so easy that you can't fail. You don't try to get 10 hours sleep if you used to get five, because that’s not practical. It's going to bed 10 minutes earlier for the next three nights, then going to bed 20 minutes earlier the next week.

It’s seeing what would happen if I turned the dial and then you focus on making one change. And that's the key.

What are the things I need to do to improve my wellness and reduce my stress at work?

One thing is to move more. Physical movement changes absolutely everything. I use the word 'move' because I'm not talking necessarily about exercise. I'm talking about when you are in a position at work, such as hunched over a laptop or on a phone. Biochemically things are changing in our system, we're becoming stressed as if we're about to be attacked. But we're not about to be attacked because it's just an email from our boss or an angry customer or whatever. So the way that stress builds up in the body is actually poisoning us. We need to disrupt stress. Easiest way to disrupt stress isn't by thinking your way out of it is by moving. For example, getting up, going for a walk even if it's for 30 seconds.

The key is to change the rhythm of your breath. If you start to breathe in too much your sympathetic nervous system is going through the roof. So just changing your breathing can fundamentally change stressing your system. It will move you away from stress and anxiety back towards wellness.

What indicators should people be looking out for, for themselves to stop becoming stressed?

A couple of red flags when you're being ambitious or when you're already pushing.

Pay attention to others around you and always give them permission to check in with you and go, “Hey are you all right?” And ask you a few times to make sure that you're balanced.

Your biometrics will tell you as well, so you know look at yourself. How much energy have you got? How much sleep are you getting? You know I'm sporting an activity tracker here. You just really analyze the stress on my system and that comes from all these different areas. If I can track that then I can have a check in with myself to see okay, am I driving myself too hard? What do I need to put in place to support myself?

The other one is nutrition and energy levels. How are you managing the recovery side of what you're doing. As soon as you find yourself without enough time to sit still, meditate, go for a walk or eat lunch away from your desk; that's the time to check in. You’ll be on thin ice if you're driving yourself too hard.

Do you think fitness has a big role in the workplace?

A healthy body is a healthy mind - that's been around since the Greek philosophers - but actually it's totally true. Your mental and cognitive endurance is affected by your physical fitness. Exercise has been proven to not only shift your state in the moment, but to boost your serotonin and dopamine in your system. It actually changes the shape of your hippocampus by a chemical called BDNF and I talked about it on my TED talk.

If you're physically fit, then you're able to handle stress more. If you’re able to handle stress more, you can stay in a state of wellness and then you're able to perform better at work. It's that lovely cycle.

This doesn't mean everyone should become an Olympic athlete or do an Ironman triathlon but it does mean you need to pay attention to what works for you.

Sometimes, we get deluded with fitness, thinking “if I'm fit I can run a marathon.” No, fitness is fit for purpose. It means you can you get up and get through what you need to do. Do you get a dip of energy in the afternoon? Are you fit enough to maintain your mood when you get home with your family?

There's different ways we can look at fitness. Can you make your commute movement based? Could you run in, or you could walk briskly or cycle? If not, can you get in 10 minutes first thing in the morning to do something vigorous like sit ups or pushups? These little things make a huge difference to your overall levels of movement and then that has the same effect on your human nervous system.

How important is it that a leader is sharing how they're feeling with the team?

It isn't what you say that inspires people, it's how you behave. If wellness is important to an organisation then the leader should display that. They shouldn’t be emailing at 1:00 in the morning and expecting people to pull long hours. Instead they should be getting up from their desk at lunchtime and showing people, ‘I've got an hour so I'm going to use half of that to do some movement stuff.’

Share the culture, the importance of moving. Whether it’s movement, resting or having some kind of reflective. It's massively important. Some people in your team might practice yoga, or prefer a walk by the Thames. But having that in the day for your mental wellness is important. Display the behaviors that you want the team and your organisation to display. It's got to come from the top down to inspire the rest of the workforce and the entire organisation

The second thing is to find a movement that suits you. You can often incorporate it with getting to work. So it isn't only going to the gym or for a run. You need to find your movement. Is it dancing or early morning sober raves? There's all sorts of things that you can do. Can you incorporate in things you're doing already if you're pushed for time. Can you get up two minutes earlier and do something in your bedroom before you start your day? Once you start to create the habit then start to become the person who moves more. This will then translate over into your wellness. It's not about taking on marathons. It's about bringing in movement more and then that opens up more choices for you down the line.

Can ambition be detrimental to a business owner. And if so how should they mitigate it?

Ambition is an important attribute. But it can also be a double edged sword, certainly in my experience. As a league sportsperson I focused so much on performance at the expense of my wellness. My ambition was to be the best in the world in the sport of diving. But it came at a huge cost to my wellness. I ended up with shoulder surgeries, chronic pain in my lower back and other issues. When I look back on my career, I can see I didn't pay attention to any of my wellness. Ambition can drive you over the edge. And so it's being aware of that but without enough ambition you're never going to go anywhere. So it's kind of an inverted U-shape. Enough ambition to get you there to the high performance, but not so much that you go over into areas of burnout, overwhelm, mental illness and physical illness. That's a blend and that's a balancing act. So it's a kind of checking in with yourself.

It’s important to have people around you who can look out for you. So if someone says to me, “Hey Leon, I haven't seen you smile for a while, you're running around, your always busy and you know you've had no time for friends or family.” It gives you that perspective. So there are ways that you can mitigate against it. Having a check in with yourself and having other people around you who can give you a friendly nudge or the head's up or hold the mirror if they need to.

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