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One answer to productivity woes? Mental performance coaches.

A Florida company is using lessons from sports psychology to boost employee engagement and motivation

Derin McMains, ReliaQuest’s director of mental performance, hypes up the crowd at ReliaQuest’s all-company conference in Tampa. (ReliaQuest)
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TAMPA, Fla. — Derin McMains doesn’t believe in work-life balance.

As director of mental performance at ReliaQuest, a Tampa-based cybersecurity company, McMains is on the front lines of one of corporate America’s biggest challenges — a productivity slump vexing companies amid a widespread shift in how workers think about their jobs.

“Balancing is an act,” McMains said as he introduced the idea of “work-life presence" during a February conference of more than 600 ReliaQuest employees. The real way to “optimize your well-being” is to “be where your feet are.” That means leaving your work at work and home at home.

A sports psychologist who worked with baseball players for the San Francisco Giants, McMains is tasked with keeping employees energized, engaged and equipped to face challenges at ReliaQuest, which has gone all in on mental performance coaching.

As the pandemic recedes, companies across many sectors are struggling with productivity, which fell in 2022 more sharply than it has in nearly 50 years. At the same time, employees are reevaluating their relationships to their jobs, spurring a national debate around flexible work.

While CEOs such as Sundar Pichai of Alphabet and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta have criticized their workers for low performance and asked them to step up, ReliaQuest founder and CEO Brian Murphy says the solution lies in coaching employees toward better mental performance.

The company has full-time mental performance coaches, kicks off meetings with “mind-set moments” and recruits with a “mind-set hiring guide.”

“Why do we have a director of mental performance?” Murphy asked employees at the conference. “Because we understand that how you think impacts how you feel and that how you feel impacts how you perform.”

Growing interest in mental performance coaching is coinciding with a time when “quiet quitting” remains a source of worker fascination and management ire and employee engagement has fallen to its lowest levels in nearly a decade, according to data from Gallup.

As Murphy sees it, the company’s efforts with mental performance have fought those forces off by improving ReliaQuest’s retention and employee engagement. And other companies are starting to take a closer look.

Deloitte hired its chief mental health officer a decade ago and has expanded access to performance psychologists since then, said Melanie Langsett, a principal in Deloitte’s Human Capital practice. The company’s more than 170,000 employees can turn to three staff performance psychologists for help with challenges in life and work. Langsett said Deloitte has drawn on lessons from sports psychology.

“Athletes are always seeking out coaching, even when they’re at the top of their game,” Langsett said. “That sort of mind-set of always welcoming coaching has been really valuable in the corporate world.”

Murphy decided to explore mental performance coaching at ReliaQuest after reading an ESPN article on sports psychologists years ago, seeing a connection with the competitive, performance-oriented world of professional athletes.

“The reality is that everything we do every day is a performance,” said Nicole Detling, another mental performance coach at ReliaQuest, who also works with U.S. Olympic athletes. “Just because our teammates here are performing in the cybersecurity space doesn’t make them any different.”

While some companies have long employed executive coaches that advise the C-suite, it’s unusual to see an approach like ReliaQuest’s, in which the entire staff is included. The coaches are constantly meeting with employees one-on-one and working with teams to help them up their game.

They’re always in search of new ways to engage workers, whether it’s an all-staff rock-paper-scissors tournament at ReliaQuest’s conference or corporate podcast “Do The Things,” which covers issues ranging from self-awareness to combating jet lag. They often refer staff members to the corporate “Mindgym” — the company’s library of mental performance videos and other resources. They give companywide seminars on topics such as “how to sleep like a champion.”

McMains makes clear his focus is not necessarily on mental health, although that often factors into the equation. Rather, it is on helping employees “embrace discomfort,” giving them the mental and emotional tools to excel in difficult circumstances.

“We’re not necessarily coming in to give you a nice fluffy pillow for you to be comfortable,” McMains said. “We want you to be able to sleep on the floor without a pillow.”

Encouraging reflection is one of the mental performance coaches’ biggest jobs. It comes easily in sports — when the game clock expires, there’s a chance to play back the tape — but not in corporate settings.

“It’s a lot of: ‘Help me understand X,’’’ McMains said. “Very few times do people just come and say, ‘Tell me what to do.’”

Company chief Murphy likes to say that ReliaQuest has a company “mind-set” rather than a culture. In its light-filled office in downtown Tampa, screens scroll through slides from the Mindgym with lessons like: “Holding yourself accountable for the outcome is great. Holding yourself accountable to the behaviors that produce the outcome is world class.”

No matter the occasion, meetings are usually kicked off with “mind-set moments,” often short videos meant to inspire employees and offer concrete examples of how to calibrate attitude and effort. One features the invention of rust prevention solvent WD-40, named because the formula was perfected on the 40th attempt by a handful of engineers in the 1950s.

That story “reminds me of the famous Thomas Edison quote ‘I failed my way to success,’” McMains says in the video. “Failure is inevitable. The humility to learn from it and the courage to grow from it, that’s a choice.”

Since the company hired its first full-time mental performance coach six years ago, ReliaQuest has maintained a retention rate of 85 percent or higher, even as the company grew from 200 to 1,200 during that period, including the pandemic.

“It helps us hire correctly, because this is either something you’re interested in, or it isn’t,” Murphy said. “Both answers are correct, but for us, it’s what we do.”

One pillar of ReliaQuest’s ethos is the assertion that work-life balance is unattainable. Brian Foster, the company’s chief product officer, said that the idea is “liberating.” Foster flew 150,000 miles last year; it’s easy for him to snap into “work Brian” when he gets on a plane. The concept of work-life presence is one thing that helps him unplug.

“I tell my wife and kids, when I’m home, I’m home,” Foster said.

Before Hannah Pilz joined ReliaQuest 11 months ago, she was a high school math teacher. Pilz, 27, wanted a new challenge, but she also was looking for a better balance between work and her personal life.

Now, as a business analyst for ReliaQuest, Pilz is constantly out of her comfort zone. But she has learned to use “failure as a learning opportunity,” applying lessons from the mental performance coaches.

At first, when she heard about the idea of work-life presence, “it hit me really hard,” Pilz said. She felt as though she’d been looking at the work-life balance equation all wrong.

In practice, it has required a lot of adjustment. Sometimes she’ll find herself thinking about a problem at work while she’s riding her bike and trying to relax, or feel her mind drifting toward planning her upcoming wedding when she’s supposed to be focusing on her job.

“Eventually, with time, I think it will be easier and more natural,” Pilz said. "It’s something I’m going to have to remind myself every time I go to work, and every time I’m doing something personal: Just be present.”

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