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Where were all the coaches when...


A white empty room with nothing on the floors or walls.
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According to Microsoft's most recent Work Trend Index - a global survey of workers across multiple industries and companies published in September 2022 - more than half of managers (53%) report feeling burned out at work. This statistic is staggering and slightly higher than employees in general (48%).

Half of the 20,000 people from across 11 countries say they are burned out!

Pause a moment and take that in. Suppose it is accurate and representative of professionals and knowledge workers in offices around the UK or whichever country you live and work in. In that case, one of the two people sitting on either side of you may be suffering from this.


So what is burnout?

According to Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research,


"Burnout is a result of continually experiencing stress in the workplace, resulting in exhaustion, cynicism, and a perceived lack of professional accomplishment."

The reasons these symptoms emerge fall into six buckets:

  1. having an unsustainable workload,

  2. a perceived lack of control,

  3. insufficient rewards for effort,

  4. a lack of a supportive community,

  5. a lack of fairness, and

  6. mismatched values and skills.


Executive coaches often work with people that experience some of these symptoms. The coaching work will likely explore different strategies to help our clients deal with some or all of them. Strategies such as:

  • Surface-level ones - tools and techniques to form new habits.

  • Going deeper - to challenge underlying assumptions and break old habits.

  • And the use of psychometric insights to raise awareness about why and the likely triggers.


Because I work mainly with individual executives, it often falls under helping the individual. This help, through supporting and challenging, pulling and pushing, might be internally focused to help them redefine their relationship with work. Or externally, where the goal may be to develop new skills and habits to manage their time better, prioritise their work, set boundaries, and improve their focus on what matters most.


DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH WORK


I have found myself reflecting more deeply recently - after each coaching session and when a coaching engagement concludes.


On the face of it, many of my clients have "made it". They have a seat at the table - something they have been working towards for many years. To an outsider, many have everything: the title, the money, the office, the power.

Yet I feel there is an opportunity for further (coaching) work regarding the dysfunctional relationship with work. Are we, as coaches, possibly complicit in working with organisations with potentially exploitative cultures? Many companies have built their business model on people constantly going "above and beyond" their job descriptions. Firms with an above-and-beyond business model often create the ideal environments to exploit the personality traits of overachievers, such as by combining internal competition with a lack of transparency.


The problem occurs when the work environment crosses some red line.

A red line that, when crossed, may mean someone burns out. Because burnout at work is linked to poor mental health and can significantly contribute to a mental health crisis in the workplace:


  • Chronic Stress: Burnout is often caused by long-term, unresolvable job stress. This chronic stress can lead to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

  • Emotional Exhaustion: A key component of burnout is emotional exhaustion. This can negatively impact an individual's emotional and mental well-being, making it harder to manage emotions.

  • Decreased Self-Esteem: Burnout often involves feelings of incompetence, a lack of achievement, or diminished personal accomplishment, which can significantly impact self-esteem.

  • Impaired Cognitive Functioning: Burnout can lead to difficulties with concentration, decision-making, and other cognitive functions.

  • Disruption to Life Balance: Burnout often causes work to infringe on personal time, disrupting a healthy work-life balance. This imbalance can impact relationships, sleep, physical health, relaxation, and personal development opportunities.

  • Isolation and Loneliness: Those experiencing burnout may withdraw socially as they feel overwhelmed, which can increase feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The paradox is that an above-and-beyond exploitative business model is sustainable for the organisation but not necessarily for the individual worker. For instance, the most successful elite law firms, consultancies, and financial services firms have been around for decades and continue to generate substantial profits and returns for their senior executives and investors. Like a leaky bucket, they may suffer from a high staff turnover that they must replace. However, no matter what clickbait headlines about topics such as the "great resignation" might say, they don't appear to struggle to do so each year.


This topic has really hit home for me recently. As I have written elsewhere, my two college-aged children will soon enter the workforce. How comfortable would I be for my daughter or son to accept a job offer from the organisations I work with? The answer, broadly speaking, is yes, I would be (fortunately). But it also depends... If there is an expectation of 60, 70, or even 80-hour weeks as a pre-condition for promotion. Or an expectation of being constantly available because "resilience is valued". Then my answer is no. So it depends on the individual business unit and even the individual manager and team they might work in.


Which got me thinking… what is the coaching profession's role in the mental health crisis at work? And specific to me - an independent executive coach specialising in coaching individuals - what can I learn from this? And crucially, what can I do differently going forward?


COACHING - FIXING THE WORKER, NOT THE WORK?


This article is intended as the first in a two-part article on the mental health crisis at work. Part one uses the issue to question the role and responsibility of coaches generally. In the second part, I will expand this to cover how different actors within the complex, ever-changing workplace system might be complicit in contributing to the mental health crisis at work.

First, let's start with coaching:


  • Are coaches neutral?

  • Are coaches the equivalent of Switzerland?

  • Are coaches complicit in helping to create this mental health crisis?


John Blakey and Ian Day, in their 2009 book, posed the provocative question, "Where were all the coaches when the banks went down?" Full disclosure, I am borrowing heavily from the prologue of their book as it does such a great job setting the scene.


Their book did not present a new angle on the banking crisis. Instead, the book used this issue to question the role and responsibility of coaches generally. It seems logical to me to ask their question again, this time with a different focus that zeroes in on the current crisis:


Where were all the coaches when the mental health crisis at work happened?


Pause for a moment to ponder this (intentionally) provocative question… what thoughts, reactions, and ideas come up for you?


These were the follow on questions from their book, which I firmly believe are relevant today:


  • How much responsibility do coaches feel when they read headlines about individuals and organisations where they coach?

  • Did we see the crisis coming yet feel powerless to influence events?

  • How much accountability do we feel for the wider systematic outcomes beyond their individual coaching engagements?

  • Could we have challenged more?

  • Could we have held leaders (that we coach) more accountable for the ethics and broader consequences of creating exploitative environments?

From one simple question arise many different views, reactions and perspectives. I encourage every member of the incredibly complex workplace systems to ask themselves:


  • Where was I?

  • What was I doing?

  • What was my contribution?

  • What am I going to learn?

As I said, I am starting by challenging myself and other coaches before expanding to challenge the many other workplace parties by posing the same questions to them.


At times coaching can be a tad trite. Phrases like "Become the best version of yourself" or the quote by Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world", get bandied around. Instead, how might we coaches best adapt by answering these questions with courage and honesty? Because the reality is:


"Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It's that simple, and it's that hard."

Danny Meyer (Setting the Table)



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