Exec coaching should not be confused with wellbeing coaching

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Traditional coaching for those who have unrecognised mental health problems can be counterproductive

In 2009 Harvard Business Review surveyed 140 of the world’s leading executive coaches and found that just 3% are engaged by businesses to specifically address personal issues, yet 76% report that they end up assisting executives with these issues. HBR also found that traditional coaching practice for those who have unrecognised mental health problems can be counterproductive and even dangerous. The vast majority of executives are unlikely to ask for treatment or therapy and may even be unaware that they have problems.

This is still a concern today; it is not always easy to recognise depression or anxiety without proper training. The survey also found that psychological training is of little importance to businesses hiring an executive coach. This raises crucial questions about whether a non-qualified coach can ethically work with an executive who has a mental health issue, and why organisations are not taking this rife issue more seriously. I believe that companies should hire only executive coaches who have training in mental health and an understanding of when to refer clients to professional therapists.

More often than not it is the top performers who suffer the most and require support from their organisations. A seemingly marginal yet realistic gain at the pinnacle of the business can result in huge wellbeing and productivity gains among the wider workforce, especially when you consider that 12 billion working days will be lost each year between now and 2030 because of poor mental health, at an annual loss of £651 billion globally (MIND research).

Successfully done, wellbeing coaching can have a whole team performing at the level of the top performer. Realign the employees' state of mind and you unlock the key to their peak performance.

While significant improvements can be made from an active approach to employee wellbeing, to achieve sustainability the stigmas surrounding mental health also need to be addressed. Most organisations are stuck in a chasm between the taboo surrounding vocalising mental health concerns, and the unnerving reality that requesting happiness could actually harm your career.

Mental health charity MIND found that 80% of 18- to 34-year-old men put on a brave face when they are feeling anxious and that one in four employees attribute any mental health issues they experience to their working conditions. So why aren’t more employees and leaders speaking out?

A vast majority of senior executives are unlikely to reach out for help and may even be unaware that they have problems. The key is to coach high-risk individuals before the decline sets in and have people functional before any further performance-related coaching becomes applicable. Senior executives with mental health issues have most likely got to where they are in the organisation because of their ability 'to cope'. As such these individuals are unlikely to admit anything is wrong for fear this would show weakness.

Executive wellbeing coaching is a tactful way of addressing these issues. A top-down approach empowers the ‘captains of industry’ with a better understanding of mental health risks while improving their own mental wellbeing. Not only do they benefit personally, the rewards of this powerful intervention will cascade down throughout the organisation. Whether this be through internalised wellness approaches or coaching in one-to-ones, innovative team events or just a generally more pleasant and effective employee-boss relationship, the benefits for all are proven to be profound.

Chris Harvey is founder of Harvey Sinclair - Executive Wellbeing Experts

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