The team coach diaries - is stress preventing your team from fulfilling their potential?

14th December by Neil Atkinson

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A quick look at the numbers and it’s clear we have a problem. Stress is now the biggest cause of workplace absence in the UK, having overtaken musculoskeletal problems such as bad backs (source: CIPD).

The World Health Organisation has said: “There can be no health or sustainable development without mental health” and predicts that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion per year.

Since I started coaching, supporting clients with stress and resilience has moved from being something that the occasional client requested, to being an underlying (if not explicit) issue for almost everyone I coach.

Speaking to many of my highly experienced coach associates, I hear the same story: the pressures of work, the relentless pace of change and the need to still be able to live the rest of your life and meet responsibilities such as parenting and looking after relatives, is leaving us exhausted.

But isn’t stress and anxiety ‘mental health?’

Coaching educators have traditionally attempted to draw a hard line between coaching for performance versus anything that may be considered a mental health issue, including anxiety, depression and extreme stress; with the latter requiring a swift referral to a therapist or counsellor.

But the flaw in this thinking is that mental health is not something we either have or don’t have. Instead, similarly to our physical health, it’s a continuum in which our experience may vary from day to day and even moment to moment. All of us face risks to our health and wellbeing that need to be carefully managed.

So where does that leave team coaches?

When I contract with any client, whether individual leaders or teams, I make it clear that stress, resilience, wellbeing, and physical and mental health are subjects I am willing to work with. Albeit I’m very clear on my boundaries as a coach and stay away from delving into issues from the past which would be more safely handled by a therapist or counsellor.

I believe that providing we work with our clients in the here and now, it can be really helpful to support them in exploring how work might be affecting their wellbeing, and indeed, how their wellbeing might be affecting their work.

Responding to stress and building resilience in the workplace happens best when it’s tackled on three fronts: there’s a lot we can take responsibility for as individuals, such as developing healthy habits and managing threats to our wellbeing such as the amount of screen time we expose ourselves to, or how frequently we keep checking emails and social media posts.

There’s also an organisational responsibility - enlightened organisations should be putting serious efforts into examining how to mitigate stress in the workplace through more meaningful interventions than the odd yoga class or access to a mindfulness app.

The third area, and possibly one of the most effective, is within teams.

When teams have meaningful conversations about what affects their wellbeing and how they each attempt to manage stress, there can be some fantastic shared learnings, as well as an increase in psychological safety, and the sense that “we are all in this together”.

One of the things I’ve found particularly effective is supporting a team in developing a “Wellbeing Charter” or as one client called it, a “Resilience Manifesto”. The aim is to support a team in identifying what are the collective stressors they experience, and which of them can they do something to help mitigate.

I’ve seen teams come up with a host of great new ways of working, including:

  • Not checking emails after normal working hours and putting an out of office with an emergency phone number instead (in case someone really needs them).
  • Giving each other permission to not accept meeting requests unless the meeting purpose and desired outcome have been clarified, and they are clear that they have a potential contribution to the topic.
  • Agreeing not to start meetings before or after a certain time of day, so that team members can benefit from some extra flexibility with working hours, for example for the school run or to attend an exercise class.
  • Starting all team meetings with one minute of silence, which a team I worked with claimed made all meetings shorter and more efficient and resulting in everyone listening more carefully to each other.

Coaching, of course, should always be client-led, but as leadership or team coaches, we have an opportunity to indicate a willingness to work on resilience and stress. In fact, you could argue we have an obligation to be looking out for how stress is impacting a team and inviting them to consider what power they have together to shape a team culture in which they can thrive.