Both a question and a challenge to the coaching profession. I find out how performance and well-being executive coach, Liz Pick, whom I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview on well-being in coaching answered her own question! We're also very excited at the good coach as Liz Pick has generously agreed to share a three-part blog series on ‘well-being’ that is leading practitioner knowledge.
YT: Let's start with a simple question - how do you define well-being?
LP: There are many definitions for well-being, and as an executive coach I find it helps to look at it in the context of health. The World Health Organisation definition describes “Health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (2014, pg 1). Of course that is an absolute, the ideal state, and so it’s not easy to work with.
Instead, I see health as an objective assessment of someone's physical and mental state and I see well-being as a subjective sense of a person's physical and mental state. Health can be evaluated, diagnosed and treated, whereas well-being is subjective. It's the difference between “How are you?” and “How do you feel?”
YT: That's a very useful definition. It makes me think of a statement repeated by many coaches and printed in many coaching literatures: a coach works only with a mentally healthy person. How does it fit in with what you've described and how you practice as an executive coach?
LP: I find it very concerning that coaches would decide not to work with someone purely because they had a mental health condition. I would suggest that those coaches are already working with clients with some form of mental illness, they just don’t know about it. If they actually stopped working with those clients, they’d end up with very few clients.
People with a mental health condition can often continue to work effectively, so my starting point is to assume that if someone is well enough to work, I’ll work with them. The alternative is surely a form of exclusion.
YT: Wow! I agree! Reflecting on what you've said it seems that this statement is too narrow in its definition especially when we validate it against our experiences and those of our clients. Could you share what challenges you've faced when dealing with well-being in coaching?
LP: One challenge has been working in a way that feels like being ‘under the radar’’. In order to deliver the agenda set by the organisation, I’ve often worked with clients on managing the impact of their well-being on their performance. But because of confidentiality, I haven’t been able to report back on the relative importance of well-being in the overall mix. It's rarely the prime issue but it is important, and they (the sponsors) don't know about it.
YT: Is there no convincing evidence out there?
LP: The link between performance and well-being is known in academic research as the holy grail, because the challenge is how to show cause and effect: “Did you feel a greater sense of wellbeing because you performed better or did you perform better because your wellbeing improved?”
Currently the real exciting development is the launch of the ‘Health at Work’ policy unit led by Professor Steven Bevan from the Work Foundation and Dame Carol Black. They have done so much to transform the perception of well-being at work over the last 10 years. The challenge for organisations has been that whilst the evidence was growing, organisations seemed slow to act. The beauty of what they are now doing is they’re focusing on measuring the effectiveness of interventions.
And there’s some interesting research out there like 'Secrets and Big news' by Kate Nash - and ‘Doing Seniority Differently’ by Disability Rights UK , that highlights when employees are given a choice, 75% of people with a non-visible condition such as back-ache, depression, dyslexia, will choose not to inform their manager because of the fear of negative consequences.
Executive coaches can offer those clients confidentiality which makes them uniquely placed to address the impact of these wellbeing issues on performance. But if coaches decide not to work with people who are not ‘mentally healthy’, then their exclusion is very concerning.
And of course if employers don’t know about the potential for integrated performance and wellbeing coaching to deliver greater benefits, they won’t ask for it, coaches won’t be trained in it, clients will be deprived of the support their peers get and everyone loses out!
YT: Reflecting on what we’ve spoken about so far, executive coaching is still ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’ how to relate and work with our clients. More likely it’s something we can intuitively grasp, and haven’t articulated in the succinct way you have here. This is what makes this very exciting times in our field!
I’ve also noticed something else, I'm sensing that statistics is quite an important indicator in our field. Let me share an example. One of the positive ROI’s that demonstrates the impact of coaching is maternity coaching (lesser paternity) i.e. those who are transitioning back from motherhood coaching has a great success. What's being disclosed to the public, the sponsors, our clients have an impact on how coaching's perceived?
LP: And isn’t that a fascinating example because if you think you about it, one of the reasons why maternity return-to-work coaching is so readily available is because the statistic are easy to collect and reliable - you can’t hide pregnancy from your employer. The question I would ask employers is: "If you’re providing return to work coaching for people after they've become a parent, - why wouldn't you offer the same to someone coming back after absence due to stress or illness?" The rationale would be exactly the same, it's just that the statistics aren’t there.
Uptake of some support services may be low because access is only provided to employees who tell their manager aspects of their wellbeing that they would prefer to keep private.
And yet the coaching industry is potentially differentiating between people because of their mental health. I find this surprising, and concerning.
YT: I agree. … Summing up what we've discussed so far, a hypothesis could be asserted that coaching practices are being driven by statistics?
LP: I certainly think most of us are unaware of the prevalence of high stress, physical and mental illness, disability and challenging personal circumstances
Any substantial gap between internal employee surveys and independent statistics is, where I would focus next. If there was a way of collecting data to show the prevalence of single and multiple health and wellbeing challenges in the working population, that would be wonderful.
Then to show the relative impact of various interventions that do or don’t address wellbeing, including coaching, would move the whole agenda forward massively.
It would probably change the rationales on which coaches make their decisions, in a good way.
Bachkirova, T. And Cox, E. (2004), A Bridge Over Troubled Water: Bringing Together Coaching And Counselling, The International Journal Of Mentoring And Coaching 2(1) July.
Bluckert, P. (2004) The Similarities And Differences Between Coaching And Therapy. Coach the Coach, Issue 2. Fenman.
Buckley, A. (2007), The mental health boundary in relationship to coaching and other activities. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Special issue, Summer
Ernst & Young (2013), Ernst & Yo https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/204611/1370512_Materniity_Coaching_case_Study_1_DRAFT.pdfung’s maternity coaching improves retention of talented women
Nash, K. (2014) Secrets & Big News: Enabling people to be themselves at work
RADAR (2010) Doing Seniority Differently: A study of high fliers living with ill-health, injury or disability (Final Report) http://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/sites/default/files/pdf/doingsenioritydifferently.pdf
WHO (2014) Basic Documents: Forty-eighth edition (Including amendments adopted up to 31 December 2014) http://apps.who.int/gb/bd/PDF/bd48/basic-documents-48th-edition-en.pdf#page=7
Williams, P. (2003), The Potential Perils Of Personal Issues In Coaching The Continuing Debate: Therapy Or Coaching? What Every Coach Must Know! International Journal Of Coaching In Organizations, 2003 2(2): 21-30