I suggested coaching couldn’t help with mental health at work and that may have been a terrible mistake.
A long time ago, before one guy ate an undercooked bat and changed the world forever, I spent many of my waking hours standing in front of groups of about twelve leaders at a time teaching them coaching skills.
Sometime during the second afternoon of my 2-day course a question would inevitably surface:
What’s the difference between coaching and counselling?
I had thought about this a lot and had a fairly fixed view. I would explain that the skills of the coach and the counsellor are much the same. They each listened, asked questions and offered observations in the spirit of helping their ‘clients’ find their own solutions. Neither coach nor counsellor would go down the “You should …”, “You must …” route.
The difference as I saw it, lay not in the skill set but in the content of the conversation and the desired outcome.
To me counselling was concerned with identifying root causes. A counsellor would guide us on a journey through our past to identify problems and critical incidents that had left a mark and were causing us problems still.
Coaching I saw as being more concerned with moving forward. Coaches helped people identify a desired end point, to examine how that contrasted with current circumstances and then to plan out a series of steps to get from one point to the other.
So far so good, but I’d then go on to suggest that if the leaders I was addressing had the slightest suspicion that a coaching approach may uncover a deep seated issue, they should check out their organisation’s welfare and access to counselling policy and perhaps arrange professional intervention.
Damn you law of unintended consequences! I may have made a terrible mistake!
I stand by my explanations but I fear I may have inadvertently suggested that coaching had no place in addressing though areas of mental health problems that can manifest at work, such as stress, work addiction, burn out and so on.
Worse still I had instilled the idea that solving these problems was something that lay outside the organisation and needed to be outsourced like waste collection or building maintenance.
And worst of all I had let these leaders off the hook. I had given them a gift-wrapped excuse not to have to worry about the messy emotional stuff that comes with leading people.
A course correction
Let me set the record straight. A coaching style conversation can absolutely help in addressing issues of mental health at work. It would be very unlikely to do any harm and might actually do some good, particularly if it helps identify and deal with problems when they’re small.
I believe this is because of three key principles on which I see all good coaching being based.
The first step in addressing any kind of mental obstacle is becoming aware that one exists. Imagine a coaching conversation in which the individual being coached comes to realise that their working hours are stretching and spilling over into home life. Nothing too extreme, but the extra Zoom call that means they missed the kid’s bath time that night or those emails sent surreptitiously from a mobile while they family are supposed to be engrossed in a movie. Nipping that problem in the bud could save a world of pain later.
A lot of work-related stress (a common cause of mental-health problems) is caused by what I call SMOG. This is an acronym for Should, Must, Ought to, Got to.
“I should have dialled into that Teams meeting” or “I must hit this month’s target” or “I ought to go for that promotion” or “I’ve got to work late this evening”
Coaching provides an antidote to this because it recognises that individuals are ultimately in control. They have a choice.
“I choose to dial into the meeting” or “I choose to go for this month’s target” and so on.
Of course this doesn’t change the underlying challenge of the situations but it changes the locus of control and makes the individual feel far more empowered.
Good coaching is founded on trust. Trust in the coach and trust in the process. Much anxiety at work builds because it has no outlet; no release valve so to speak. A leader who coaches has the ability to create a climate of trust in which problems can be aired and solutions considered without fear or favour.
So, if I ever conveyed the idea that coaching had no place in helping address issues of mental health at work, I was wrong and it wasn’t my intention. I may have made a terrible mistake!
There will still be times and situations for which proper professional help is called for of course, but there is no reason that the process of addressing the problem can’t start with a coaching conversation as a natural part of a working relationship.
It could make all the difference.