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What’s Working? The Healthy Path to a High-Performing Workplace

Who could possibly have the credentials to improve the performance of Richard Branson, a man who flies hot air balloons when he’s not overseeing the global conglomerate he founded at the age of 20?

Well, when it comes to performing under pressure, former professional tennis player and current executive coach James Cluskey fits the bill. For Cluskey, the learning experience with Branson has been a two-way street. His time spent on the billionaire’s Necker Island fostered his interest in personal development, prompting him to start sharing his performance and sports psychology expertise in board rooms across the country.

Cluskey favours a holistic approach to work and is an advocate for focusing on a team’s overall health first to maximise their performance potential. As a Vhi expert who regularly speaks to corporate Ireland, he has an in-depth knowledge of what’s working for high-performing individuals and organisations…

Can you give us an example of a hallmark of a high performer?

I actually asked Richard Branson this question around fitness… and his answer was that “I feel more productive work-wise if I’m active outside of work.” If he’s an active lifestyle, he feels like his brain is more productive as well. The doctors would agree with that.” 

Leading CEOs have long known the benefits of a holistic approach. Are companies here starting to knit together health, wellbeing and performance?

Things are getting better, for sure. Competitive business is a sport as well. Companies are trying to get an advantage. They’re starting to realise that looking after your people, making sure they’re happy, fulfilled and motivated, has an effect on the bottom line. American companies coming in have had a big influence. A lot of the tech companies are very proactive. 

What supports should forward-thinking companies be providing?

Dental care, health insurance… These kinds of programmes. But also looking at the ‘social good’. Some tech companies give their employees time-off to volunteer for charity, for example. People joining a company want to be part of an ambition. And a vision. I think that’ll be a given in the future.

What about combating the sedentary nature of the office environment?

The ‘Couch to 5k’ training plan is brilliant. I also know a few companies in the UK that are having stand-up meetings now. Plus, away-days and off-sites. Get people more active. When you look at stats around obesity in Ireland, there’s a lot to do.

How can you protect your health and wellbeing when work deadlines start taking priority over breaks, eating properly and even sleeping well?

When people get stressed, they tend to speed up. To not look after themselves. It’s almost taking a step back to take steps forward. So, you need to really sit down and think: what is the goal, what is the vision, what are you trying to achieve? Then focus on the small [self-care] things you should do on a daily basis to help you achieve it.

What should employers and team leaders be doing to encourage people to get involved?

You can have all the bells and whistles, you can create the best programmes in the world, but engagement is key. If the company is really living its values, that rings true. Getting speakers in, upskilling bosses to then lead by example, that all helps. HR has a big role. It’s leading from the front. There needs to be an importance put on it. It’s not just a tick-the-box exercise. In terms of the benefits? We do see reduced absenteeism, [increased] happiness levels.

Do team-building activities promote overall wellbeing?

If you’re in nature, if you’re up the Wicklow mountains just thinking, ideas come to you. If you’re in the office every day, you can become stale. I would be a big fan of bringing your team away once or twice a year. I’m not saying it has to be something radical. As people move towards flexitime and remote working becomes even bigger, time that people spend with each other is going to be so important.

Do you have a core mantra from your sporting career to help people approach their working life in a healthy way?

I would say: what’s the vision? Work back from that. What are you trying to achieve? What are the small things you can do every day to help you achieve that?

What’s one suggestion you’d have to improve the Irish workplace?

I like the idea of stand-up desks. I think they’re starting to come in and people are starting to say, “sitting down is the new smoking”! That concept is good.

What would I change? Making people more active. Sometimes there’s meetings about meetings. Get out of the office and your comfort zone.

Looking for more information on how Vhi can help you support your employees? Simply speak to your account manager or visit