With the balance in our lives tipping too often towards work, sometimes we need a therapist coach to help us change our habits…
By Margaret Nicholls
We hear a lot about work/life balance these days. You need to switch off, they say, de-stress, find some ‘me-time’. But when habits are engrained, it is hard to get off that hamster wheel.
Gill Fennings-Monkman, an integrative psychotherapist and coach, sees an increasing number of people who are under enormous pressure, not just to do their day’s work, but to come home and to carry on grafting.
‘Unfortunately, many workplaces breed a culture of “Who’s the weakest one?” or “Who’s going to leave the office first?”’ says Gill. ‘In some environments, having a work/life balance is perceived as being a negative thing or almost selfish.
Setting the boundaries between home and work
‘Unless the boundaries between home and work are clearly set out, it can easily become a habitual need, based on stress and anxiety, to keeping checking your emails and your phone. And the brain becomes conditioned, habitually, to operate in that way.’
As a result, we often neglect our relationships with our loved ones as well as our relationship with ourselves.
We need time to think, reflect and connect with ourselves
Gill explains: ‘We need time to think, reflect and connect with ourselves. If we can do that then we’ll find it easier to relate to others in a more positive and meaningful way.’
With more of us running our own businesses, keeping the delineation between home and work and setting boundaries for ourselves is not easy. It is hard to break these engrained habits on our own. A coach can help us begin to do this.
Gill explains that she helps her clients begin to create spaces and periods of time for mindfulness. ‘I start small and give them a taster of very short mindfulness practices that can be done at different times during the day, for example on the train.
‘I remember recently working with a very high-profile executive who just never, ever stopped working,’ she says. ‘Just to get him to not answer phone calls after 8 o’clock at night and to actually not do any work over the weekend took weeks of gradually spreading out those spaces. It took several weeks to change the habit but he soon felt enormous benefit.’
Many of her clients don’t come for help until they’re already having serious physical health issues, have been warned by their doctor or their relationships are breaking down. Even then, some people find it extremely difficult to carve out time for themselves.
‘Some people actually cannot sit comfortably and have time with themselves or with other people,’ Gill says. ‘They always have to be doing something. They have to learn to allow themselves time to just be.
‘As a therapist, I can see that is because they may have uncomfortable material coming up when they’re in that space and they don’t know quite what to do with it.
‘One of the benefits of being an integrative practitioner is that you can help people deal with those deeper, emotional issues as well, if they’re getting in the way of them making progress.’
The benefits of using a therapist coach
Although work coaching tends to be about improving performance in a particular area, making you a better leader, a more confident communicator, or overcoming career hurdles, sometimes more challenging issues may arise, for example, severe stress, addiction or panic attacks. In these cases, the lines between coach and counsellor can become blurred and will need the experience of an appropriate therapist.
Gill, who is also on the coaching executive of British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), says that multi-skilled therapists can sometimes be better equipped to help with certain issues.
‘They’re trained to identify mental health issues, and if any such issues come up, they are a very safe pair of hands,’ she says.
Sometimes the issues are masked behind a symptom and it takes a bit of discussion to get the real issues to come out.
Gill explains: ‘If lack of confidence is the problem then we might look at their belief system, take a history of any previous experiences or trauma, and see if there are any negative repeating patterns.
‘We might need to do some change work on their negative beliefs. Sometimes I do that verbally in a very empathetic but challenging way. We look at the narrative of their story from different perspectives.
‘As an integrative practitioner, I use a range of tools, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and Emotional Freedom Technique. The aim is to change someone’s belief that they’re not good enough, to: “Actually, I’m capable and I can overcome problems.”’
Tackling addiction first
As working life becomes more stressful, people are leaning more and more on methods of self-medication, from several glasses of wine at night to relax to weekend drugs.
‘As a specialist in addiction work, I can give clients some very clear guidance on what needs to happen and what kind of support is out there,’ Gill says. ‘Several times a client has said: “I want to improve my business, I want to improve my profits, I want a better relationship with my wife, I work too much and also I drink 20 bottles of wine a week.”
‘If they present with that kind of array, I would probably say: “Well, let’s deal with the drinking issue first.” Because unless you help them to create change there, they’re unlikely to have the stability to be able to tackle the other areas effectively.’
In Gill’s experience, often it’s not just one thing that anybody presents with.
‘When a client comes forward for coaching, very rarely is it just about wanting to improve their confidence or to be a better public speaker or cope with their nerves at meetings. Even when you uncover some of those issues, there are always deeper issues somewhere that have created that situation to arise.’
Reasons to use a BACP coach
BACP stands for British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists. BACP coaches use their skills to integrate development coaching and counselling.
- When it comes to work-related issues, there is sometimes a need for coaching and counselling to overlap. Andrew Kinder, who is on the executive committee of BACP Workplace, explains: ‘Someone who is trained in both disciplines will be well qualified to deal with any mental health aspects that arise. Whereas someone who doesn’t have that training may inadvertently get involved in quite complex mental health issues and not be fully competent to work with what comes up.’
- A BACP coach with psychological training can offer an advantage when dealing with deeper issues such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, addiction and family problems. But Andrew Kinder stresses that a coach must be open as to which approach is being used when they are acting in a therapeutic capacity. ‘It’s important to be transparent with the client,’ he says.
- BACP coaches are qualified counsellors and/or psychotherapists. There is a formal register you can check on their website.
- The BACP is a respected governing body so you can have confidence that any complaints or issues will be dealt with professionally.