In the latest in this series on neuroscience and coaching, Amy Brann explores the importance of championing both performance and wellbeing in our clients


Across many organisations these days, there’s considerable discussion around the future of work – what will, or should, a workplace of the future look like? What are employees-to-be going to be looking for in an organisation? Which mindframes or behaviours should organisations be developing in their people to help them adapt to new ways of working?

But among all this uncertainty and flux, there remain two foundational themes that continue to be heard through the organisational narrative: mental wellbeing and performance.


Outdated view on mental wellbeing

Over the past few years, many organisations have needed to amplify their strategies for supporting the mental wellbeing of their people, as employees have struggled with the anxieties and disruption of the pandemic. Managers have needed to become more proficient in having conversations on mental wellbeing with their team members to address concerns and provide support, flexibility and reassurance.

But more recently, as people increasingly turn to contemplate the future of work, one question we often hear when talking with organisations, is whether now is the time to shift and reframe back towards productivity and performance. Whether a manager’s conversational narrative with their team should be reworded to put the emphasis back on deliverables, efficiency and ‘getting work done’. However, questions like this hark back to the outdated idea, still lingering in some organisations, that wellbeing is a nice-to-have. A business add-on that they should be offering their people because it’s what good organisations do.

But wellbeing isn’t an add-on; it’s a business imperative. And thinking that they should either focus on wellbeing or performance – that it’s somehow incompatible to consider both of them in the same breath – is always going to be a sub-optimal strategy for creating high-performing teams.

Because, when you look at it on paper, all the scientific evidence points to the exact opposite – that wellbeing lies at the very heart of people’s high performance.


Mental wellbeing at the heart of high performance

Take sleep, for example. It’s one of those fundamental human wellbeing needs that we all take for granted, but that’s absolutely critical for the healthy functioning of the brain. When you don’t, or can’t, get a good night’s sleep then your ability to react to events happening around you is slowed down. You find it more difficult to sustain your attention over longer periods of time. You find that you can’t regulate your emotions as well and you become more stressed and anxious than usual.

Sleep is also known to be important for specific mental functions such as memory where we know from science that the brain ‘replays’ many of the day’s events during deep sleep. In fact, studies have shown that the same neurons that were activated in the day then become reactivated during the night, often following the same sequence of activation. This process is thought to be necessary for consolidating and reinforcing your memories from the day, extracting the gist, and integrating them into your existing knowledge.

Sleep is also thought to be important for creativity and problem-solving where alternating night-time cycles of NREM and REM sleep can help juggle up your thoughts to generate the creative insights that can sometimes pop into your mind when you wake up in the morning.

But this is just one example of how poor mental wellbeing – in this case poor sleep quality – can impact performance at work. Physical fitness is another area where the evidence strongly supports an association between wellbeing and performance. For example, recent evidence on the impact of exercise on the brain shows that having a regular exercise regime or doing short 10-minute bursts of exercise can benefit sleep, improve mood and decrease stress levels while also having the ability to boost cognitive function, fortify memory and safeguard thinking skills.

What’s particularly special about exercise is its ability to have a broad benefit for mental wellbeing, rather than a narrow one. This is in contrast to other mental interventions such as brain training or language learning which have a positive effect on the regions which are necessary for that cognitive task, but this benefit doesn’t necessarily translate to other aspects of cognitive functioning.

In contrast, studies with exercise interventions have shown that the effects are much broader and can benefit a wide range of cognitive faculties, including your executive function, working memory, planning and problem solving.


Coaching wellbeing

So, when it comes to wellbeing and performance, it’s not an either/or situation we’re talking about here, it is a both/and situation. They are two side of the same coin – and you can’t achieve high performance if you don’t also have high mental wellbeing.

Although many organisations take the employee benefit route when trying to improve wellbeing, coaching also offers a powerful route for supporting the formation and maintenance of healthy habits that enhance and sustain wellbeing over time. In fact, many of the topics covered in coaching conversations around performance and how the brain works best, such as managing expectations, setting and persevering with goals, having self-belief and habit redesign, are also relevant to wellbeing.

Take expectations, for example: the brain is a prediction machine that is continually trying to make predictions about what might happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. These predictions build up a picture of how something might turn out which in turn creates expectations. When these predictions are right and things work out as you expected (or better!) then you get a sense of satisfaction and familiarity.

In contrast, when there is a mismatch between your expectations and the reality of the actual situation or experience is worse than expected this can create feelings of disappointment and failure. The process through which the brain generates these expectations is the same regardless of whether it is applied to a wellbeing goal or a performance goal and so coaching on expectations can benefit both outcomes.


Reimagining the middle ground

Harnessing the scientific evidence of the close association between performance and wellbeing, including with an understanding of what goes on in our brains, can be very helpful. Coaching the mindframes and behaviours that underpin both wellbeing and performance can support managers to reimagine this and/both middle ground where they champion both performance and wellbeing within their conversations. In this way, employees can achieve their potential in a way that is aligned with how the brain works best.


  • Next issue: Why organisations should replace managers with coaches

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