Performance psychologist, Dr Kate Goodger, shares insight and tips that CAs can implement to better manage their wellbeing
Former Team GB Olympic psychologist Dr Kate Goodger has spent a decade helping businesses unblock barriers to performance. Under the shadow of economic downturn, she tells Richard Dunnett how CAs can cope with an ever more demanding workload
Last year’s mental fitness survey of ICAS members found that more than two-thirds had experienced exhaustion in the previous year. With recession looming, a cost-of-living crisis and the possibility of hiring freezes adding to burgeoning workloads, under-pressure CAs might be feeling stressed, fearful of burnout and wondering how they might better manage their wellbeing.
As a performance psychologist, who worked with Team GB athletes at seven Olympic Games and was pivotal to the historic medal hauls of 2012 and 2016, Dr Kate Goodger has spent the past decade helping business people understand some of the blockers to performance.
“In sport, we work on periodisation, phases of the year when you get to rest and recover, with training and competition built around that. There’s a constancy in business that’s ‘go again, go again, go again, get your holiday, keel over, recover a bit, and then go again, go again, go again’ – a very different set of parameters for performance,” says Goodger, a former teacher who went on to earn both a master’s and a PhD, which led to her working with British sailing, athletics, bobsleigh, equestrian, canoeing and curling programmes. She is also a speaker for diversity and inclusion organisation Moving Ahead.
Business leaders regularly ask her how they can create high-performance teams. “It’s actually a little unhelpful when they ask that because it is focusing on the wrong question,” she says. “High performing is the outcome. The athlete doesn’t focus on the gold medal – that’s the dream. They focus on the process day to day, the elements they can control – training, competition planning, evaluation etc. That process takes care of the outcome and our brains actually work better and are less stressed with a process focus. The better questions are: what conditions do you need to perform and what’s the process to establish them?”
She credits psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters, known for his work with British Cycling and his book, The Chimp Paradox, with whom she had a 10-year mentoring relationship, for fundamentally shifting how she looked at the world. “He gave me a clear mental model as to how we sometimes hijack ourselves. A big part of what he creates, which can be uncomfortable for people, is your own accountability in managing yourself. We often want to blame everything else around us. But really, start with yourself and the intentional choices that you’re making. You’re on the hook.”
In this climate, many CAs will default to working long, caffeine-fuelled hours. But Goodger urges them to adopt a deeper awareness of themselves and their impact on others. “A great way to immediately deepen awareness is having feedback on your impact on others. I see leaders who don’t have any feedback mechanisms in place and are assuming their impact,” she says. “That would never happen in sport. You hunt the feedback down as athletes because if there’s no feedback, there’s no learning. Start with the simple questions – what am I doing that’s helping and where am I not helping?”
Another area of awareness is understanding our design as humans. “We have a fundamental biology wired around survival and belonging. When we feel unsafe or threatened, especially around our performance, credibility, capability, how others see us, our biology kicks in. We’re flooded with hormones like cortisol, we think more emotionally, our focus narrows, it’s harder to access the problem-solving parts of our brain and we burn energy faster,” explains Goodger. “Our job is to notice when we’ve been triggered and our system is activated in this way. The body and mind are doing their job but it’s not helpful to performance.”
The pandemic has given many people the chance to reassess themselves and their jobs, and to work at what they need to be at their best. “For many, Covid was the chance to stand back and look at how we are approaching our work. People are valuing their wellbeing more and what really matters to them. The challenge now, as we return to the office, is how to hold on to these lessons,” she says.
As Head of Human Innovation and Performance at construction company Laing O’Rourke, Goodger has shaped the company’s approach to capability and energy management. She’s rolled out executive development and coaching, and wellbeing initiatives aimed at site-based operatives. Building interventions around teams to unblock barriers to performance has helped individuals see what’s getting in their way.
“Whereas in sport, training and competition are built around spending energy and recovering it, in business we tend not to do the second part well. Shifting people’s thinking to valuing recovery more starts with awareness; awareness of what builds or depletes your energy, the time of day or week when you do your best work and what simple approaches can create recovery moments. If we don’t find the right balance we are working suboptimally, and over time the impact can be job stress or burnout."
“It’s a different way of thinking about performance and we do that at different layers of the business. So the guy in the crane, spending 12 hours up in a glass box: how does he maintain himself? Or the female who’s underground all day, working to replace London sewers? It’s about helping all those individuals find ways to make their work sustainable and to have energy for home life too.”
The onslaught of new challenges facing CAs in recent years illustrates how the performance required by business differs from sport, says Goodger. Leaders may fear burnout – though she says that term is an “overused colloquialism” – when what we’re seeing is people overloaded by work demands being depleted of resources. Burnout is a syndrome, a collection of characteristics that are all present, rather than a condition in which energy and resources have silently eroded. Of its three dimensions, two – impact on performance (reduced accomplishment) and emotional (and sometimes physical) exhaustion – could be job stress. “The third for me is the differentiator,” she says. “What makes it burnout in my understanding is what we call cynicism or depersonalisation. So you go from loving something to loathing it. Think of a swimmer who doesn’t want to be anywhere near the pool.”
She credits programmes from the Energy Project, an organisation that helps businesses embed sustainable high-performance practices and helps individuals leverage the best of their internal resources. “They have a simple model and language to be able to talk about our energy and capacity based on four dimensions of energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – and our need to balance what we spend in energy and the time to recover it,” she says. “What that’s enabled us to do in Laing O’Rourke is for people to recognise when they are not balancing those two things. Typically, as people we ‘exert, exert’ but we don’t do the recovery part, often because we worry how it will look if we say no to something. It goes back to our wiring and biology for survival and belonging, and the fear this generates about how others see us.
“If a C-suite exec says they haven’t visited the bathroom all day because of back-to-back Zoom calls, that’s nothing to do with their business, that’s the individual. The world isn’t going to end if a senior leader tells people they are going to pop to the loo, but they’re making choices to be available to all people all of the time and not managing their system well.”
If those intentional choices sound familiar, consider defined boundaries of time – or sprints – when it comes to meetings and diary management. Tools like Microsoft Viva help to manage wellbeing by using your screen data to analyse how, or how late, you work, or when you are back to back with meetings. “Physiologically, your body has an ultradian rhythm that lasts 90 minutes,” she says. “If you’re in meetings longer than 90 minutes, you’re going to be suboptimal. Hold your big meetings on Tuesday or Wednesday when people have most energy, and certainly don’t do anything business-changing on a Friday afternoon, because we’re just not there. This is known as the peak, trough and recovery cycle that our bodies naturally have each day and also across the week.”
Rhythm and views
With key events like the annual review or audit, the rhythm of accountancy draws parallels to sport. Goodger encourages CAs to think about periodicity and managing capacity during those intense times when your department will be under the pump. And the sole trader, instinctively replying to the ping of a client’s email during News at Ten when they could easily delay replying until the following morning?
“The challenge for sole traders and those working from home is setting boundaries,” she says. “Longer hours don’t mean better performance. Consider task-switching with short sprints of set time where you focus on one objective before switching to the next task. Manage screen fatigue. A simple rule of thumb is to do the opposite of what you have been doing. If you’re sitting down, stand up. If you’re inside, head out for five minutes and throw the ball around with the dog. Recovery is not taking an hour’s nap in the afternoon – it can be as simple as a one-minute reset. It is about finding out what works for you and building new habits.”
If you have a to-do list, Goodger advises underlining no more than five “do or die” tasks at the start of the day before switching the computer on. “Think about how to do the to-do list. Instead of saying ‘I’m going to have to work late because I’ve got three reports to get done’, section the time, put a note on your emails to say you won’t be checking them between those hours – with a number for emergencies – and shut the door to the world so you can have that absorbed focus time.”
Instead of embarking on drastic changes that are akin to writing New Year’s resolutions (“which tend to fail really quickly”), Goodger recommends adopting a test-and-learn mindset of micro experiments, as championed by authors James Clear in Atomic Habits and BJ Fogg in Tiny Habits.
She suggests leaders ask their teams what builds and depletes the department’s capacity, and to think creatively about how to solve this – for example, by not sending emails between 7pm and 7am or holding 45-minute meetings rather than hour-long ones.
“Ask your teams where the pain points are and run experiments for two weeks. It’s critical to have measurements – accountants are going to love that – because if there isn’t data to measure there’s no point doing it. Data enables learning. After a fortnight, you evaluate, redesign and go again. It’s about small intentional habits that build into bigger ones.”
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