Skip to content

Employee Engagement Workplace Wellbeing

The making of a ‘Corporate Athlete’

There is a link between the behaviours or habits of elite athletes and successful corporate executives which is how the term ‘corporate athlete’ was coined. What can we learn from the routine of an elite athlete to help our employees perform at their peak?

What is a ‘corporate athlete’?

The concept of the ‘corporate athlete’ was developed by Dr Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. After working with elite athletes for 25 years they started to see how the disciplined routine of elite athletes could be applied to the corporate world for sustained improvements in job performance.

With changing demands in the work environment, employees in the corporate world are expected to always be available, online longer and always ‘on’. All the while, balancing financial and personal pressures. Employee burnout and stress are fast-becoming a key concern for organisations around the world as it can seem almost impossible for employees to keep up with the demands of their personal and professional lives.

Burnout is becoming more prevalent in workplaces:

  • 67% of employees reported feeling burned out on the job1
  • 75 – 90% of doctor visits are related to stress2
  • 9 in 10 HR professionals name poor health, high stress and lack of sleep as factors impacting employee wellbeing3
  • 37% of UK organisations report stress-related absence has increased over the last year4

The research from Dr Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz show that employees who adopt some of the qualities and disciplines of professional athletes can be better placed to meet the demanding needs of their personal and professional lives.

So what are the differences between a corporate executive and an elite athlete?

Elite athlete

  • Trains 90% of the time / competes 10% of the time
  • Has an extreme amount of discipline to ensure they’re fuelling their body right, exercising regularly, sticking to a strict sleep routine and taking measures to ensure they’re in the right mindset
  • Usually has an ‘off-season’ of 4-5 months per year
  • Average career length is 5 – 10 years

Corporate executive

  • Spends 90% of their time performing and < 10% of their time learning and developing
  • Works long hours in a demanding role with high stress
  • Usually sacrifices rest and nutrition due to being time-poor
  • Only a few weeks off per year (if they actually take the leave) but could still be checking emails and answering calls whilst on the break
  • Expected to work 40-50 years in their lifetime without a significant break

How can organisations give corporate executives the tools and skills that they need to be able to perform at their peak, avoid burnout and maintain a work-life balance?

What can’t be controlled in the work environment is time. Time is fixed, there are only so many hours in the week that employees have to perform their job, manage personal commitments and look after themselves. What can be controlled is the energy available for employees to be able to perform both professionally and personally.

The energy to get through 40+ hour weeks doesn’t just require physical energy but also emotional, mental and spiritual energy. Improving these four areas will help set employees up to perform at the optimal ‘corporate athlete’ level.

Physical energy

Just like elite athletes, it’s important for employees to look after and prioritise their physical health to optimise their performance. This includes eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, taking frequent breaks in the day to rest the mind and getting an adequate amount of sleep each night. Doing all these things help to maximise physical energy levels.

Emotional energy

Whether you’re an athlete or an executive, everyone goes through set-backs in life. What helps overcome these setbacks is increased resilience.

A big part of improving resilience is developing a more positive mindset. Some of the tactics that a person can use to develop a more positive mindset is practice gratitude daily, introduce more positive language in their vernacular, spend quality time with loved ones and observe their emotions before reacting to situations.

People who display negative emotions are more likely to manifest fear, anxiety, impatience and frustration which then has a flow-on effect to other team members. These emotions can also inhibit a person’s ability to manage change.

Mental energy

For an elite athlete to achieve their goal of becoming the best or the fastest in their sport, they need to be able to focus, manage distractions and have exceptional discipline when it comes to time management. The same can be applied to the corporate world.

Having the ability to manage distractions like emails, phones calls and even co-workers will help employees maximise on productivity. It could be flexible work arrangements, encouraged breaks throughout the day, quiet rooms or breakout spaces, meditation resources and a workplace culture where vacation leave should be taken each year.

A tactic that elite athletes also use to achieve their goals is to visualise what success looks like, whether it’s winning a gold medal, beating a personal record or competing on a global stage – if they visualise it, they’ve got more chance of achieving it. The same goes for employees, if they visualise the outcome of a big pitch, the result of a difficult conversation or the completion of an important project – they’re more likely to be successful.

Spiritual energy

For humans to be successful and genuine in what they do, they need to feel that it aligns with their values and higher purpose. For an athlete to be successful in their field, they need to feel like the daily training and sacrifices they are making are connected to their higher purpose e.g., to represent their country at the Olympics.

In the workplace, for employees to feel truly motivated for success they need to feel like the work they are doing aligns with their personal values and has a purpose. In the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA headquarters, he asked a janitor what his role was at NASA and he responded with “I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

Having a company vision statement that inspires and motivates employees will help them to understand how their work contributes to the overall success of the business. Having regular communication relating to customer success stories or how the business has impacted the industry and/or community will help reinforce to your employees that the work their doing is making a difference.

Get your business leaders to walk the walk

If organisations can encourage business leaders to adopt the ‘corporate athlete’ mentality this will set an example for the rest of the workforce. Employees will be able to see first-hand the benefits of leading a healthier lifestyle and how this can help them tackle the demands of their personal and professional lives. Refining these skills now will set them up for a long and fruitful career.

For more information on the impacts of employee stress and burnout in your organisation, you can read our eBook ‘4 simple ways to help employees beat burnout’. To find out how you can manage stress in your workplace, download this quick read.

  1. Gallup, Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes, 2018.
  2. The American Institute of Stress, America’s #1 Health Problem, 2018.
  3. “State of the Industry: Engagement & Wellness in 2015.” Virgin Pulse. 2015.
  4. CIPD, Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey – 201919.