This Is How Coaching Programs Can Help Out-Of-Answers Leaders With Employee Mental Health

World Mental Health Day, October 10, arrives at a time during which corporate commitment to mental health and recovery is at the top of the news. One of the largest trends is in coaching programs, popularized in the 1980s. Historically, support for mental fitness has been most readily found at the extremes — the corporate elite and those with mental illness or substance abuse issues. Questions about how unregulated coaching programs differ from licensed medical professionals—and who’s best suited to help from a coach—are being asked by leaders nationwide.

I asked experts how they might explain the objective of business-related coaching programs in particular. “One way of thinking about coaching is akin to wanting to go to the gym and work out physically, maybe with a personal trainer as your coach. We also need to work out our mental muscle and coaching helps people to get clear on what they need today, their goals and offers intentional strategies to close that gap,” explains Shonna Waters, Ph.D., Vice President of Behavioral Science at She bridges the gap between research to advance the science of behavior change and organizational practice by consulting with business leaders on how to to help people thrive through change.

Waters cautioned that coaching is not a place for employees in crisis, those with a clinical disorder or who are healing from serious trauma. 

As mental health concerns skyrocket, employees and leaders are looking for new ideas that have an impact across their business. Research shows that 80% of people living with mental illness feel that Covid-19 and the national response have made their mental health worse, according to Rethink Mental Health, which has led anti-stigma and empowerment programs annually.

The answer may be coaching— for business leaders, managers and project leads searching for answers as winter looms. Here, research helps to shed more light on the industry and who may benefit from coaching in a business setting:

Uncertainty at Work

A study from UCONN School of Nursing shows that although unemployment is as high as it was in the Great Depression, employed people worried about finances and getting laid off are showing the most distress. The findings are part of a 12-month study on “how behavior and social attitudes change, and what factors influence those changes, when people in the United States are faced with the threat of widespread disease,” according to the principal investigator in the study, Natalie J. Shook, a social psychologist, associate professor in the School of Nursing.

Normalizing Open Discussion 

Coaching is being used to help groups of leaders cope with the stress of COVID-19. “When top leaders normalize talking about mental health, they set the tone and norms around what is okay to discuss and what is not in a business setting, says  Dr. Waters. To be able to give all employees the ability to ask for and seek care for mental health issues, leaders need to get comfortable with the issues at hand first. Leaders then have a vested interest in developing skills and mindsets among managers, who handle much of the everyday stress on work teams. 

Managers’ Impact  

Managers have a huge impact on employees and ideally, they should be equipped to support people through these times. It’s complicated and time-consuming when there are layers of change including restructuring and family pressures, says Dr. Waters. “People with high levels of social support have higher resilience. Everyone is different but everyone needs social support.”For example, there has been a 33% increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety. This means that it’s likely that your colleagues are suffering in some way. Be on the lookout for changes such as performance changes, lack of social interaction with colleagues, such as being more emotionally reactive in Zoom meetings, not answering calls and becoming withdrawn. Be prepared for people to lose emotional control at times, says Dr. Waters. “But a pattern of outbursts is a clear signal that someone may need help.” Building a trusting relationship is the best way to start any intervention. Start as early as possible asking how people are doing as winter comes and the pandemic continues. 

Give Employees Space to Heal

“One of our diversity and inclusion specialist coaches said, ‘I’m talking to people of color, recognizing their fatigue. [They need a space to say], “I’m just tired. I’m tired of talking about what happened to George Floyd over and over and over again. It’s like trying to heal from a wound and constantly picking at the scab and peeling it back. It just won’t heal. I just need a space to figure out, Am I right for feeling this way? Am I wrong? Where’s my voice in it that is authentic to my experience? Coaching spaces provide a safe and vulnerable space for them to have conversations about identity.

Dr Waters adds,“And for allies or aspiring allies it’s also tricky territory. You want to help but are not sure what to do.” Dr. Waters also suggests starting by creating space for BIPOC colleagues to heal.

Unease Is Here to Stay

It’s can feel like a permanently grey day for many of us, which is why breaking through the gloom with human connection is so valuable. “One of the beautiful things about how terribly ubiquitous the anxiety is? We can all share it. Questions to ask yourself or your teammates include: What are you doing to take care of yourself these days? How can the team help? Is there something we can take off your plate for now? Coping and resilience skills won’t work if you do not get sleep and eat well and engage in some physical activity, says Dr. Waters.

What Is In Your Control?

Nobody knows what the future holds, but it is human nature to worry about it. Dr. Waters suggests an exercise for people who are feeling constant stress or fear and anxiety about the future. Ask yourself: When I have a worrisome thought, am I making an assertion or an assessment? An assertion is a thought about facts (The sky is blue.) Assessments take us out of the present and cause anxiety (It’s a nice day. The sky is blue. Why am I not enjoying it?) Stick to assertions, which enable a sense of control. 

Leaders should acknowledge and honor that employees are struggling right now, even if they can’t solve every problem. “If you don’t acknowledge that this is a weird time it can be perceived as tone deaf. In meetings, make sure to give voice or name the challenging situations people are in. For instance, more than half of employees haven’t been able to find alternative solutions to childcare. If we don’t acknowledge that there are layers, the situation and supports that are available remain unclear. It is likely that an employee wants to do their best work but is really struggling with juggling everything. Work is a source of meaning and purpose and gives us energy in times of trouble. “Marking progress as a team or with an individual connects people.Ie reconnect with the meaning and purpose that underlie their work. 

The goal is to help people live with more clarity, purpose and passion, says Dr. Waters.

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