A few months ago I was introduced to a new coaching participant. “James” has been working for his organisation for many years in a senior role and has had a long and successful career leading a large team.
When I met James for the first time I was struck by his extrovert, engaging nature. However, I also felt concern: he looked exhausted and was clearly carrying too much weight. James said that he wanted to explore his future options within the organisation, and in the second session he started to disclose some of the issues he was facing. There had been several restructures of his area over the past three years and he had had five different managers over the last year. His recently appointed manager had no previous experience of James’ area of expertise and was an external hire. James’ team had been substantially cut back and he was expected to produce far greater results with many less resources.
James said he was feeling incredibly lonely. His entire network of colleagues with whom he had worked for many years had all either left the company or had gone to work in other areas of the country. He felt he had nobody that he could relate to. He was working longer and longer hours and was sleeping very badly. He would regularly wake at 2am and start worrying about his work. He hadn’t had a holiday for two years – the last time he took a couple of weeks off he had spent the entire time on the phone with his team and had come back to work feeling more exhausted than before.
I found myself feeling increasingly concerned about his well-being as we talked. I realised that, as well as the immense pressures he was facing at work, his private life was also suffering greatly. I took my courage in my hands and, as respectfully as I possibly could, I talked to James about what I had been observing in the sessions and how this was impacting me. I asked him what he would do if he was sitting in my role, and what advice would he give himself. James became teary at this point. He said that he was feeling quite desperate – as if he was on a merry-go-round that couldn’t stop. He said that the sessions provided him with the only space he had to reflect on his current situation.
We started to look at James’ options for the future. He was aware that his health was taking a huge toll. His blood pressure was elevated, he was eating and drinking unhealthy amounts and he had stopped exercising. He recognised that he was experiencing quite serious burnout and that, if he didn’t do something soon about his situation, his future was potentially threatened in every way. He had briefly considered leaving the organisation, but he had spent so many years there and he loved the work so much that the thought of doing something quite different was indeed terrifying.
As a coach, I am increasingly facing coachees who have similar experiences. The new disruptive environment in which organisations are finding themselves is proving to be incredibly challenging at a personal level for so many people. I believe that as a coach we need to find within ourselves the stillness and inner resources to sit with the ‘not knowing’ and ambiguity of so many of our clients’ huge challenges. As Travis Kemp mentioned in his excellent talk on “Systemic Approaches to Well-Being in Organisations” at the ICF in Sydney recently : “We need to do the work on ourselves first and foremost. If we are to be the instruments of change within organisations, we need to be calibrated and validated. Otherwise, we’re as useful a faulty altimeter to a pilot. It won’t be a pretty ending.”
I strongly believe that it is increasingly important for coaches to have some training in how to recognise and deal with mental illness that can so easily be triggered by burnout. I will be writing about this more in the future.