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Workplace Wellness

Workplace Wellness

The Wellness Conundrum

This is an extract from the book ‘Lead By Example’ by Mat Lock. This is from Chapter 2, The Power of People and helps the reader to understand how we can pursue the acceleration of human potential and high performing teams. This particular chapter starts by Mat sharing a traumatic experience that he and his team experienced during an endurance event they were competing in. 

Let’s dive in…

“It was just past 3 a.m., and I was sitting with my crew in our white Dodge Caravan on Highway 89, almost 110 km North of Flagstaff, Arizona. The handheld radio that was nestled into a cupholder in the centre armrest crackled to life and broke the silence of the chilly night air. 

We were just 28 hours into our assault of the world’s toughest bicycle competition, a 5,000km nonstop ultra-cycling event called the “Race Across America.”

“Stop. Stop. Come back now. Shit. There’s been an accident.”

As team captain, these weren’t the words I wanted to hear. Especially, as it was my wife, Neridah, who was in the saddle at that moment.

As we raced back retracing our steps, we could see their crew vehicle, another white Dodge people-mover was stopped in the middle of the road, doors wide open, hazard lights flashing ominously. In its headlights, we could clearly see the lonely outline of a bicycle lying in the road. 

The highway was undergoing maintenance and there were traffic cones shielding vehicles from the cracked asphalt. But not cyclists. In the dead of night, the front wheel of my wife’s bike had buried itself into a deep rut. She had been thrown like a rag-doll from her bike and landed hard. 

The rules of the race require that the trailing support vehicle must be close enough to keep their athlete within the beam of the vehicle’s headlights. Of course, that means they’re close — less than five metres sometimes. The total stopping distance (reaction + braking distance) of an average family vehicle traveling at 30 km/h is around 21 metres. You can do the math.

Thankfully, the response of her crew that night was anything but average. They managed to stop with less than one metre to play with and, adrenaline coursing through their veins, they attended their fallen rider.

And there she was, slumped on the doorsill next to the sliding door. Breathing, conscious and lucid but holding her face quietly with blood-covered hands. There was a certain irony in my performing the initial assessment on Neridah as she’s the medical professional — a Registered Nurse with more than two decades of experience. What was immediately clear was that she had some deep, nasty cuts to her chin and lips, a couple of loose teeth, and injuries to her ribs and hands, the extent of which, neither of us could say. She needed professional care, X-rays, and likely more. Immediately.

The entire basis of our strategy as a four-person team was having a couple of two-person shifts. Each pair would ride for a four-hour shift while the other pair were whisked ahead, trying to eat, sleep, and  squeeze in the best recovery they could before their next shift started. Within the four-hour shift, the pairs would share the load by riding for 20-minute efforts. Rinse and repeat for 5,000 km. 

All of this was made possible with a 13-member crew in three vehicles whose sole focus was to get the riders safely from the West Coast of the continent to the East Coast. These legendary accomplices are drivers, navigators, masseuses, cooks, comedians, commentators, and counsellors. They were everyday people, there at their own cost, and united by a common purpose.  

It could almost be the opening line of a joke… Three POMs, two Aussies, and a Kiwi walk into the Mojave Desert in the middle of the night…What do three POMs, two Aussies, and a Kiwi in the middle of the Mojave Desert desert in America at night have in common? You can probably come up with a decent punchline from there. 

But, like a house of cards, pull one wrong card, and the whole thing will tumble. That was our race team. 

All I knew was that Neridah needed a hospital and we were now but a lonely dot on a tracking app that wasn’t moving. Meanwhile, the other half of our team was screaming toward Monument Valley at Warp Factor 4 with their two weary riders desperately needing to rest and recover. 

I triaged on the spot and made the decision. Our race was done and we needed to find the nearest hospital to get Neridah medical treatment. I said this out loud to the crew, who nodded solemnly and then, heard the words from Neridah’s mouth that I shall never forget:

“No. F*ck that. We’re here to race.” 

She was determined. And I knew better than to argue with a determined Neridah.

What happened next epitomised the very definition of teamwork. The display of resilience and the resulting camaraderie as our disparate crew rallied, unified by a common goal was almost overwhelming. 

The goal? To finish the race, of course. 

Our team went into overdrive. Without question, the other two-person half of our team were returned to the nearest hospital, Tuba City, without any real rest or recovery, but ready and willing to start an extra shift while Neridah was assessed and treated. I rode from where she’d fallen, not knowing her prognosis but comforted by her being in safe hands.

The next 24 hours demonstrated that, as a team, we had the capacity to recover quickly from this difficult and unplanned situation. Neridah had suffered three broken fingers and required 21 stitches in her face and mouth. The doctors were stunned when she asked when she could ride again and, owing to the amount of Ketamine she’d been administered, she was instructed to rest for at least 24 hours. That meant our entire strategy had to evolve on the spot. And our team of volunteers delivered — but we’ll come back to that story later.”

…When we take concepts of high performance from sport and apply them in business, contrary to common belief, it can be hugely beneficial to the workplace. We now know people will perform better when there is a common purpose, role clarity, skill development, trust, a way of managing conflict and community. It is also clear that there is a massive overlap with human wellness.

The term wellness has become rather ubiquitous in the corporate space over the last decade or so. And while it is not always understood, it can be a complex subject that many businesses grapple with. In fact, it’s rather common for performance and wellness to be handled separately, but performance shouldn’t be seen as taboo in the wellness conversation, nor vice versa. 

What we do know is that when a business gets it right, the symbiosis between wellness and performance is clear to see. If handled the wrong way — through constant external motivation, increased targets, KPIs, financial rewards —  then this is where performance can become an opponent to wellness. 

What is by now hopefully more clear is that optimal performance is driven by intrinsic motivation. Providing an opportunity for continued competence, autonomy, and community while helping people connect to a larger purpose and find meaning in what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis will likely yield far better results than the more traditional incentives alone. 

Humans are social creatures. It’s critical to help and support them to feel happier and healthier if you want them to perform better. Yes, that requires an investment of time, money, and effort, but that’s business, and the opportunity costs are likely far greater. 

We’re all humans and as such, we inherently want to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, a shared vision, and a common purpose. And meeting those needs will foster a culture or collaboration, and bridge personality divides like never before.

…Which brings us back to our Race Across America, in a hospital ER cubicle in Tuba City, Arizona…

It was 0400 hours and, had you been there, you’d have seen Neridah lying on a narrow bed with the rail safety guards raised to keep her from falling out. She was covered from her feet to her neck by a clean white blanket and connected to a series of high-tech medical devices. Owing to the Ketamine she’d been administered, and much to our amusement, you’d also have heard her gently singing an incoherent rendition of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” — we’d be riding through Kansas, Dorothy country, soon enough,  and it just demonstrates how the subconscious just keeps right on ticking — before losing consciousness and receiving the much-needed care to her face.

As for our race strategy? The patchy mobile phone service at least allowed us to discuss and develop a “Plan B.” We were still in the game.

On reflection, I remember feeling emotions of pride, gratitude, and love for each member of our disparate team as they pushed aside any thought of personal needs such as rest and recovery. The crew became a cohesive unit as they adapted to meet the new challenge and paved the way for us — the riders — to play our part.  

Of course, we now have the benefit of looking through a different prism to understand why a team who had been in various states of conflict pre-accident was now able to adapt to become a truly high-performing team. What was it that had caused the shift and, unbelievably, not only got us to the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, but onto the podium of one of the toughest bicycle races in the world?

How can we explain this turnaround in team performance?

Think about it. The race represented a new challenge for every single one of the 17-strong team. Given the chance to achieve mastery and demonstrate a level of competence was a key driver of each person’s motivation. And like at the Olympics or in a functional training gym, the result was measurable.

The second of the psychological motivations, autonomy, was also met. Every single person had chosen to give themselves to this project. They had chosen to use their annual leave, chosen to pay for their airfares to the U.S., chosen to be part of the team, and subsequently, they had each chosen to accept the changed conditions post-accident. They were invested.

And as for feeling a sense of relatedness… As I said before, the display of resilience and the resulting camaraderie as our disparate crew rallied, unified by a common goal, was almost overwhelming. We’d traversed mountain ranges and deserts together in our little ecosystem through night and day, never losing sight of our common goal, caring for each other, and forging friendships that will endure the test of time. 

And as we did so, we also understood that we were part of a larger story, a community. There were countless other teams tackling the same adventure and no doubt experiencing their own challenges along the way. Race officials, media crew, volunteers, and spectators who lined the streets in every town were also part of the story. And of course, the many friends, family, and colleagues who watched online were with us every pedal stroke of the way. Their messages of support and love at all hours of our weeklong race served to reinforce that we were part of something “larger.” 

And that’s the point I’d like to close this chapter with. It doesn’t require that you sign up for some crazy endurance race like we did, nor does it require that you construct a plan to make humans rise to become a multi-planetary species like Elon Musk

It simply requires that you play your part in making whatever team you’re in greater than the sum of its parts. It requires that you consciously work toward being happier and healthier. It requires that you be brave in all that you do, have as much fun as you can, and importantly, lead by example for others in all areas of your life.

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