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Helping businesses walk the wellbeing talk

A Q&A with England Women's Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi MBE

Following the recent Vitality Champions Welcome Day at Twickenham Stadium, an annual event that this year saw over 80 UK companies pledging to get their employees 20% more active (more on which later), former England Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi MBE gives her advice on helping drive positive behavioural change among employees.

What’s driven you to succeed in sport and beyond?
Personal challenges and inspirational leaders. I got into rugby at around 13 years old and was selected to represent England at age 19. I grew up in a council estate, from a single parent family. I never really had a choice to be in my comfort zone. Being in sport continued to strengthen my resilience. I felt challenged all the time.

Women’s sport has only just started to get the recognition it deserves, so back then I had a job too while I was playing. I worked full time for the Rugby Football Union as a Divisional Talent Development Officer and had to balance that with being a World Class athlete. At that time, I was training six days a week and having to fit that around a job that required me to work a lot of hours. But working and playing in the same sport meant I was fast losing the love for rugby. So I left that job and went to work for the Youth Sport Trust, which was chaired by Baroness Sue Campbell at the time who is now the Director of Women’s Football at The FA. She was a really inspirational leader and she helped me find my passion and realise that I wanted to help people.

When I retired after the Rugby World Cup in 2014 and was thinking about what to do next, I realised there’s a lot of fitness, wellbeing and prevention support out there for youngsters but not necessarily for adults. Prevention was never really a thing for the Baby Boomers or Generation X. So, my focus now is on helping adults.

What prompted you to get involved in helping business as a leadership and behavioural change mentor?

I already had a relationship with Vitality as they’ve been a strong supporter of women in sport for some time. Having lived and breathed physical and mental fitness for as long as I can remember, I’m obviously really passionate about it. And Vitality are all about encouraging people to live a lifestyle that has a positive effect on the body and mind. The parallels with sport are obvious in terms of things like preventing, not just reacting to, injuries. So, getting involved with them as a mentor to clients just seemed like a natural fit.

I’ve gained various qualifications since retiring from professional sport, including an Undergraduate and Postgraduate Degree in Sport and Exercise Science looking at all aspects of physical fitness and psychology with an emphasis on understanding human behaviour. I am now undertaking an MBA in leadership to build on this knowledge.

This has all equipped me well for delivery of practitioner insights to ensure meaningful support to individuals and businesses.

What are your thoughts on the employer’s responsibility when it comes to wellbeing?

In sport, everyone has a duty of care to look after an athlete. Employers have that same level of duty of care in terms of looking after employees, which in turn helps them to be as productive as possible in their job and also outside their job. But this onus is on everyone, not just the employer. It’s a shared responsibility.

We’re seeing already that the more businesses invest in wellbeing, the more individuals get out of it and the more the business gets out of it.

How are you drawing on your rugby career specifically to help companies drive positive behavioural change amongst employees?

It’s not necessarily about my rugby career, more just being an athlete. There are lots of aspects in terms of resilience, teamwork and knowing your own identity that are transferable to business.

Please sum up some key aspects from sport that are transferable to business.

  • Build resilience
    This is about not giving up: your “bounce-back ability” in effect. I’ve built up my resilience by facing more and more challenges and embracing failure. This grows your comfort zone. The same applies in a business sense. Employees should be supported to expose themselves to more difficult tasks and challenge themselves over and over again.
  • Know your identity
    Athletes know their identity. They use terminology such as: “I’m an athlete” / “I’m strong at X. And X is the area I need to improve”. Ask an employee to describe themselves and they’ll probably say: “I’m an accountant” or whatever it may be they are doing for a living. In other words, their job defines them. If that person enjoys a sport – running or cycling, for example – they should feel empowered to say so. Change the way you speak about yourself and it changes your identity.
  • Teamwork matters
    In a genuine team environment people use each other during the positive times and the difficult times. In sport, we all have fantastic strengths but also some weaknesses. Your team mates help fill the gaps. There’s also a certain gratification that comes from a team working together: from doing something well together. That’s why exercising as a team or in pairs matters.
  • Create balance
    You need to give time to athletes to exercise but they also need to be granted time to re-energise. In business it’s the same. So many people sit at their desks and work during lunch. They should be encouraged to switch off for a bit: go for a walk, catch up with a friend/colleague. It’s all about balance. If people are given time to switch off, they’ll give more when they come back.
  • And finally, what’s your involvement with the Vitality Champions initiative?
    I am the Director of the Vitality Champions Programme and I oversee the whole initiative. I recently hosted the annual Champions Welcome Day at Twickenham Stadium for over 80 volunteer representatives from UK companies of all shapes and sizes. This event sees new volunteers each year committing to help motivate their colleagues to look after their own health and wellbeing. This year saw the volunteers pledging to get their employees 20% more active in line with Vitality’s global commitment last year to get 100m people 20% more active by 2025 (globally).
    I work with a team of Performance Champions – former Olympic and World Class athletes – who were all in attendance on the day. We follow up the Welcome Day with visits to companies throughout the year, helping them further motivate their staff by using examples from our personal athletic careers to inspire employees to get active and look after their health.