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AASP Newsletter - January 2020

Researchers' Corner: Exploring the Mental Health & Well-Being of Individuals Working in Performance Sport


Brendan Cropley

Paul Sellars

Stephen Mellalieu

Rich Neil

Chris Wagstaff

Ross Wadey

Brendan Cropley, PhD, University of South Wales, UK
Paul Sellars, MSc, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK
Stephen Mellalieu, PhD, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK
Rich Neil, PhD, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK
Chris Wagstaff, PhD, University of Portsmouth, UK
Ross Wadey, PhD, St. Mary’s University, UK

Introduction

There has been an emerging interest in the welfare of those responsible for facilitating the performance of athletes (e.g., coaches and sports science staff) as these professionals are experiencing increased scrutiny. For example, Hings and colleagues (2018) identified the importance of sport scientists and medics being able to regulate their emotions in order to manage and enact the emotional labor inherent within their jobs. Further, Cropley and colleagues (2016) highlighted the importance of sport psychologists developing the necessary coping strategies to manage the demands associated with their roles and subsequently enhance both professional and social functioning. Cropley et al. surmised that a failure to do so would result in an increased likelihood of burnout. Thus, given the potential impact of the job on coaches’ and support staffs’ mental health and the associated impact on their performance and quality of life, research aiming to understand mental health and well-being in this population is warranted. As a result, we conducted a longitudinal study that examined the mental health and well-being of individuals working in performance sport. Specifically, we were interested in potential fluctuations in mental health across the course of a performance season (one year in total), as well as those factors that may have a positive or negative impact on mental health and well-being at different times during this period.

Methods

The sample was accessed through UK and European performance sports clubs. In total, 17 practitioners (female n = 7; male n = 10), who covered a range of different roles/positions (e.g., Coaches; Psychologists; Physiotherapists; S&C coaches; Biomechanists, provided their consent to participate. Data were collected via the Well-Being Process Questionnaire (WPQ, Williams & Smith, 2012), which is based on a transactional model of well-being and is a single-item measure that assesses 30 constructs (e.g., depression, anxiety, negative and positive affect). Overall well-being can also be calculated through taking the sum of the negative factors away from the sum of the positive factors. Participants were also asked to provide open-ended feedback regarding the factors that had a positive or negative impact on their mental health and well-being at the time of data collection. Following institutional ethical approval, both the WPQ and open-ended questions were uploaded to an online survey platform. Participants then completed the questionnaire pack via email link at 6 time-points across a year. 

Well-Being and Mental Health Factors

The overall levels of well-being within the sample remained relatively stable across the entire year, with participants generally scoring in the mid-low/mid-high quartile for well-being. There were no instances where a participant reported either high or low / negative levels of well-being throughout this study. For all participants, job-related stress and work overload remained moderately high, with work withdrawal (e.g., difficulty in withdrawing oneself from work-related activities both physically and mentally) remaining almost entirely in the highest quartile across the year. Further, the data indicated that whilst there were minor fluctuations across the time points, depression and anxiety scores remained relatively low for all participants (although anxiety scores were slightly elevated to those reported for depression).

Qualitative Feedback

Across the 6 time-points participants identified a number of factors that had a positive impact on their mental health and well-being, including: good work-life balance; time spent with family and friends; recognition and appreciation from work colleagues; and a good working environment (e.g. open channels of communication and autonomy). For example, one participant (a sport psychologist) highlighted, “My well-being is at its highest in work when I’ve got a good working relationship with the coach and athletes … it’s like we provide each other with support and recognize the value in each other’s work, which makes me feel more satisfied.”

In contrast, those factors reported as having a negative impact on their mental health and well-being included: unhealthy work-life balance; poor working relationships; excessive workload and travel; and a lack of support in the work environment. Specifically, one of the psychologists commented, “[My well-being suffers due to …] the long hours. The time I spent away from my family during our last tour … 22 nights away from home, that was tough.”

Implications and Take-Home Message

Given the nature of our findings, several implications are worthy of consideration. First, employers should be proactive in tracking staff workload and work-life balance as well as staff satisfaction in order to identify potential issues before mental health and well-being are affected. In doing so, it is likely that individuals will be able to maintain a positive level of professional and social functioning/performance. Second, reward for effort appears to be a prevalent factor impacting on overall well-being and therefore organizations must make a concerted effort to offer deliberate praise for the efforts of staff. Finally, organizations must ensure that they support staff to develop the necessary resources required to cope with the demands of operating in performance environments.

Working within performance sport is a demanding endeavor and as such supervisors should monitor staff well-being and workload, praise effort and support the development of relevant coping skills within their staff. In addition, practitioners must understand the potential harmful effects of failing to gain an awareness of their own level of well-being as well as appropriately managing this level across the course of their respective seasons. Certainly, all practitioners, irrespective of discipline, must develop the strategies, support networks and working practices required to flourish both within their professional and personal lives.

References

Cropley, B., Baldock, L., Mellalieu, S., & Neil, R. (2016). Coping with the demands of professional practice: Sport psychology consultants’ perspectives. The Sport Psychologist, 30, 290-302. doi:10.1123/tsp.2015-0125

Hings, R., Wagstaff, C., Thelwell, R., Gilmore, S., & Anderson, V. (2018). Emotional labor and professional practice in sports medicine and science. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 28, 704-716. doi:10.1111/sms.12941

Williams, G., & Smith, A. (2012). A holistic approach to stress and wellbeing. Occupational Health at Work, 9, 29-31.

A similar article has been published in the British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences publication, but has been modified in this instance:

Cropley, B., Sellars, P., Mellalieu, S. D., Neil, R., Wagstaff, C., & Wadey, R. (2019). Mental health and well-being of individuals working in performance sport. The Sport & Exercise Scientist, 59, 28-29.