“He might be agreeing with me, but I know he thinks I’m a waste of space really.”
“We spoke for an hour about my appraisal and all I can remember is the negative stuff, which took up about two minutes of the meeting.”
“I know this presentation is going to be a disaster, I’ll look like an idiot.”
“My colleague didn’t say ‘hello’ to me this morning….she’s probably angry with me about something.”
“If I can’t do this perfectly, I may as well not bother even trying”
Have you ever found yourself thinking thoughts similar to these? Sometimes they can flash through our mind so quickly we don’t even notice them, and yet they can be a toxic influence on our wellbeing and success, both at home and at work. We are often so conditioned to thinking this way, that we take the thoughts, and their associated feelings, as facts: “I FEEL like I’ve let the side down, so I HAVE let the side down.”
Most of us can recognise having had similar thoughts at some point in our lives. For many of my clients, though, these unhelpful thoughts underpin an anxiety about their performance at work. More often than not, this anxiety seems misplaced. To all intents and purposes, these are very successful business people, with good livelihoods. But sometimes the anxiety which drives this success – the need to achieve, to prove oneself – can cause great distress and even some dysfunction, away from the gaze of bosses, colleagues, friends and family. Many of my clients come to me for support because this anxiety is threatening to undermine their success, and derail their future career progression. I often find that unhelpful thoughts like these are lingering just under the surface.
I call work with these clients “Cognitive Behavioural Coaching” – a combination of the classic CBT techniques I use in some of my therapy work, with over twenty years experience of coaching in business.
The examples at the top of this article include the six most common forms of negative thinking.
1. Mindreading. Assuming that you know what is going on in the person’s mind, without checking the facts.
2. Filtering. Ignoring any positives and focusing only on the negative information received, no matter how small or insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
3. Fortune telling. Predicting the future, often with very little (or no) objective evidence to suggest a negative outcome. This can often, unfortunately, be self-fulfilling. Fortune telling often leads to….
4. Catastrophising. Simply ‘knowing’ that your actions will fail, making you look incompetent and inevitably leading to you getting sacked and unltimately losing your home and family. Of course, the reality is that you ‘know’ no such thing.
5. Personalising. Believing that other peoples’ behaviour may somehow be caused by your actions.
6. Black or white thinking. Also known as all or nothing thinking, this is where we lose sight of a ‘middle ground’ solution, thinking only in terms of often extreme either/ors.
Such thinking will often go hand in hand with anxiety about a situation, whereby a flood of adrenaline leads to increased heart rate, clamminess, butterflies in the tummy, shallow breathing and even dizziness. This can lead to a sense of panic.
The great news for people who experience this unhelpful thinking is that it can be overcome, with a little work and some focus. We can systematically re-train ourselves to recognise such thoughts, and to think differently about the scenario. Over time this can lessen the severity and duration of any anxious response. Typically we can:
1. Notice when it happens (not always as easy as it sounds, but using a thought journal to jot down examples can help).
2. Challenge the thought – how realistic or helpful is this thought?
3. Explore alternative explanations – e.g. it’s more likely that the colleague who didn’t say ‘hello’ had a bad journey, rather than anythng you said or did.
4. Look for objective evidence to support, or counteract, the idea that your thought might be a fact? e.g. “The reality is that I’ve done a lot of preparation for this presentation, so it is more likely to go well than fail.”
5. Ask yourself “what’s the worse that could happen?” And then go further – ask yourself, even if the worst did happen, would it REALLY be as bad as you fear?
These changes don’t happen overnight – we’re often working with deeply-ingrained negative thinking patterns. But working with a coach to overcome negative and unhelpful thoughts can be hugely powerful in unlocking barriers to progression and happiness, both personally and professionally. The effect can be further enhanced when taught alongside relaxation and mindfulness techniques. To arrange a free initial consultation about how I could support you, or a colleague, call 07961 363621.
Yes, I get it. The workplace is tougher than ever. It’s a jungle out there, kill or be killed, you’re only as good as your last sale. I get it, I really do. And yes, every organisation needs to find that sweet spot somewhere between not stretching employees enough (leading to ‘rust-out’) and pushing them into the burn-out zone.
But sometimes, even in the best organisations, people will find themselves perilously close to burnout. And – contrary to common myths about stress and depression – these people, more often than not, will be your best people. People who you value. People whose absence you will feel, should they take time off sick. Oh – and they’re people to whom you have a legal duty of care.
So how does a good employer – or a line manager, for that matter – recognise if one of their people is under too much stress, at work or at home? And what can they do to support the employee? Read on for some signs to watch out for, and some guidance:
1. Your “Star Employee” is a good place to start. You’d be wrong to assume that your weakest, poorest performing employee will be the first to succumb to intense stress. In his 2012 book “Depressive Illness: Curse of the Strong”, Psychiatrist Tim Cantopher demonstrates that it is the conscientious workhorses, the “dependables”, the driven self-starters, and the ambitious who are likely to snap first. Because they give a sh*t. When the going gets really tough, they feel the pressure, but respond to it by working that bit harder. Or longer. Or by worrying a bit more about the situation. And there’s only so long you can do that for, until…SNAP.
2. Does everything seem like an emergency? People in the grip of stress often respond by worrying more and more. The cycle of anxiety can eventually become debilitating, but one of the earlier signs is that, at times, their sense of perspective might go out of the window. As an observer, you may find yourself wondering exactly what the emergency is, when in fact the issue at hand is relatively hum-drum and maybe even unimportant.
3. Have they taken more days off with “migraines” recently? Of course, it’s very possible that they do indeed suffer from migraines, or a similar complaint. But people who are feeling close to burn-out are often unable or unwilling to talk about it with colleagues, for fear of appearing vulnerable. God knows, there’s still enough stigma about mental illness around, to make talking about it feel very unsafe in some workplaces. So when that employee is so stressed that they can’t face dragging themselves out of bed, “I’ve got a migraine” might be the go-to reason which masks a more worrying truth.
4. Mood changes. Do you employ someone who used to be the office joker, and now barely cracks a smile? Or who was once able to handle the curviest of curveballs, but now loses their temper when confronted with the slightest of setbacks? Do you find yourself increasingly treading on eggshells around someone? These are all potential signs that that person is getting close to their limit in terms of stress management. You may even have already seen their performance start to tail off.
5. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Ok so it might not be that exciting, but maybe you’ve noticed that someone in your team has started smoking recently. Or they’ve begun having a few too many drinks on work night outs. They may have started gambling, or engaging in other more…risky…activities. In general, you may have found yourself wondering about their welfare. Again, it’s the change in behaviours which is the key indicator, particularly where the behaviour seems particularly out-of-character.
So what can I do?
Maybe you’ve ticked off one or two of the items above, and are thinking that you’ve possibly got a stressed employee on your hands. It’s probably somebody who you’ve rated highly in the past; maybe you still do. A perfectly good question to ask now would be “So, how can I help him or her? (And in doing so, indirectly help my business?)”
Of course, one thing that you can do would be to encourage them to talk about what’s on their mind. As a business leader, you’re in such a strong position to set a supprtive tone within the organisation – one which recognises that no-one is superhuman. And one in which people can speak up about things that are troubling them. As they’re likely to be one of your more conscientious employees, you might need to reassure them that it’s okay to speak up; to give themselves a break; to relax a bit. But most of all, you will need to listen, and listen good.
You could suggest that they speak to their GP. NHS waiting lists for counselling are now shorter than ever (although still way too long in many areas), so that could be an option. Or you might want to suggest – and maybe even fund – some sessions with a private counsellor. Six to twelve sessions of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – has been proven to be very effective for anxiety, stress and some forms of depression.
You could point them towards the plethora of resources on the internet, such as at mind.org.uk, to help them better understand what is going on, and to reassure them that they are not alone in experiencing what they’re going through.
As well as offering one-to-one CBT sessions for people already experiencing stress, I also run a series of “Beating Stress” group workshops – a pre-emptive strike against the perils of burn-out which will help your people remain at their best in the face of increasing pressure. These can be tailored to the particular needs of your organisation, or bought off-the-shelf. In either case, they represent a sound investment in the wellbeing of your staff, and in the health of your overall business. If you’d like to find out more, give me a call on 07961 363621.
Are you thinking about re-entering the workplace? If so you’re not alone. In the last few months, I’ve been approached by more and more female coaching clients who have been out of the workplace for a long time, and who are seeking a return to paid employment. Two of these clients have been out of the workplace for over 10 years; and all of them were struggling to make the transition.
Often these clients had successful careers at the most senior levels in business, and left work to care for their children. As their children grow up and become more independent, their mothers look to re-enter work – but not necessarily following the same career path that they left all those years ago.
This can be difficult. For starters, we’ve just been through Britain’s worst double-dip recession since the second World War, and the job market has changed beyond recognition. And on a practical level, technical job skills and current market knowledge may need a significant brush-up in order to be up-to-scratch again. But the barrier that seems to have the biggest impact is an internal one; namely, a loss of self-confidence.
Why does this happen? Well it seems to arise where, during the years of home-making and child-caring, the individual’s sense of identity becomes dominated by the roles of “mother” and “partner”, and she can begin to lose a wider sense of who she really is. A number of my clients have been in this very position: they find themselves considered simply as “mum”, “wife”, or even “carer”; and wonder what became of the whole person they once were. It’s not unusual for this to bring a sense of loss for the ‘whole’ person, and even mild depression. For some this need to re-assert themselves can bring a sense of guilt, as in “am I letting the family down?” These guilty thoughts battle, in the unconscious, with their real need to fulfil themselves in every way – professionally and personally – again.
But with a bit of careful planning and support it is possible to make the return to paid employment, in a way that balances these apparently conflicting positions. When I coach these clients, here are some of the factors we think about and work on together:
What’s important to me? Each of us is driven by a set of personal values; a list of things that are important to us, and which shape our choices (often unconscious) about how we live our lives. I run a short exercise which helps a client to establish which values are really important to them. Understanding these drivers can be an important first step in thinking about where to go next in your life.
What skills can I bring? I encourage clients to think about the balance of skills they can bring to a new role. Think broadly here – it’s not just about the technical stuff, and neither is it just about “what I used to do”. If you volunteer (PTA, working in a charity shop etc), what gives you a buzz in that work? Are there any fresh skills that you would particularly like to develop?
Learning from the past. I often encourage clients to think about their career so far, to step back from the detail of what they did and when, and to look for patterns in their career path. When were you happiest? What was it about those times and roles that fulfilled you? Likewise, when were you least happy, and why? This can help to frame your thinking about what you might want to do next.
Imagining the future. Having thought about the past, allow yourself to imagine the future! What would your ideal role look like? How would it feel to be successful in the role? Your ultimate picture of success might feel a long way off right now, but visualising what it looks like is an important and helpful part of the journey.
It’s who you know. Now is probably a good time to start updating – or setting up – a LinkedIn account. Get connected to people you have worked with in the past, and current contacts, irrespective of their field. You never know who they might know. Don’t be afraid of suggesting a catch-up coffee with any of your contacts – ‘exploratory’ discussions can occasionally reap rewards!
Getting ready. You’ll know when you’re feeling confident enough to ‘get out there’; but it may take a while for your sense of readiness to build. In the meantime, use the time to think about some of the issues I’ve mentioned. If you’re looking for employment (as opposed to setting up on your own), you might also want to think about developing a fresh skills-based CV.
I use a series of exercises and techniques to support my clients as they explore the practical and emotional issues linked to re-entering the workplace. To find out how I can help you, give me a call today on 07961 363621, or take a look at my website.
The Weybridge Flyer magazine were recently kind enough to publish a Q&A, written by me, in their February edition. It’s a kind-of everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-counselling-but-were-afraid-to-ask affair. I asked my Facebook friends to come up with some questions, and have tried to answer them all! If this article raises any further thoughts, questions or concerns for you, and you’d like to get in touch – please do so, via my website (http://www.philcoxcounselling.co.uk). I’d love to update this blog as more questions come in!
Anyway – here are those questions! (And my answers)
What can counselling help with?
Counselling can help people who are experiencing a range of emotional difficulties, including depression, stress, anxiety, addiction, relationship difficulties, bereavement, anger, and self-esteem issues.
What’s wrong with talking to my family or friends?
Clients often sense that whatever is troubling them is not something which they can resolve on their own. Family and friends can sometimes help, but not always; talking to someone impartial can be particularly beneficial. Some counsellors (including me) will offer a free introductory session, to allow you to get a sense of whether counselling – and that particular counsellor – is right for you.
Will a counsellor advise me on how to put things right in my life?
They will provide you with the safe physical and emotional space that you need to feel properly heard, and to navigate your way through your difficulties. How they do this will vary from counsellor to counsellor, but it will often involve talking about life events (past and present), relationships, feelings, thinking habits, and patterns of behaviour. But will “they put things right” for you? No – only you can do that (and they will support!)
Do I need to be referred by a doctor?
I always suggest that clients let their GP know if they are feeling depressed or anxious. He or she will be able to tell you what support is available on the NHS. Many people prefer to see a private counsellor or therapist. You don’t need a referral for this, and can simply call the counsellor directly.
Do I have to be depressed to benefit from counselling?
Not necessarily. Ask yourself two questions. Firstly, is whatever you’re experiencing causing you distress? And secondly, is it getting in the way of leading the life you’d like to lead? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, then generally speaking, counselling may be of benefit to you.
Is counselling totally confidential?
Confidentiality is an important part of the counselling process. Generally, what is discussed in a session is confidential between you and the counsellor – with some very unusual exceptions, such as if there’s considered to be a serious risk of imminent harm to you or others. Your counsellor will talk you through these exceptions before commencing work with you.
How do I find a counsellor?
More information about the counselling process can be found at www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk. From here, you can link to the ‘Find A Therapist’ directory of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy.
It’s now only a couple of weeks before the festive season really hits us, and the chances are that you are looking forward to a Christmas to remember. But maybe not.
If you have suffered a loss or bereavement, Christmas can be a gruelling time. Traditional family rituals, the familiar sounds of carols, even the smells of Christmas can all evoke powerful memories of Christmas’s past, and leave an overwhelming sense of sadness. What’s more, feeling that you are ‘supposed’ to be happy at this time of year, can have the effect of compounding yyour grief and increasing existing stresses.
Here are some practical pointers to help you get through Christmas, if you are bereaved or separated from loved ones.
1) Be Kind to Yourself
You might receive lots of offers, suggestions, advice and ideas about how you “should” spend Christmas. But think about where and how you would like to spend the holiday. Are you perhaps facing a Christmas without children or without one particular child for the first time? If so, would you prefer to spend the day completely alone with your partner or other children? Or surround yourself with family and friends? Talk through your plans with those that are close to you, but whatever you decide, do everything you can to make sure Christmas is as you would like it.
2) Allow Yourself to Feel
Those suffering loss or bereavement often feel under pressure to hide their feelings from others at Christmas, worried that their grief might ‘hijack’ the festivities. But it is important that feelings are honoured and expressed. So if you feel sad, allow yourself to cry; if you’re angry, find a way to let off steam. Talk to those you will be spending Christmas with about this beforehand. Think about how you might express your emotions to your children, using age-appropriate language, and how to help them express their feelings too.
3) Look After Your Body
Get plenty of sleep and rest. Tiredness can magnify emotions, so try to take a nap whenever you can, even if this is at the expense of Christmas preparations. It’s much more important to rest than to whip up an extra batch of mince pies or bake a Christmas cake!
Stay moderately active over Christmas. Even gentle exercise can help stimulate the natural chemicals that improve your mood, and will encourage better sleeping patterns.
As tempting as it might be to try to lift your mood or drown your sorrows with chocolates and alcohol, try not to overdo either! Both can cause a dip in mood, and mess up your sleeping patterns, once the initial effect has worn off.
4) Get Support
It’s important to get practical and emotional support at Christmas. Whether it’s family, friends or colleagues, you need a variety of people around who are able to give you the kind of support you need. This could be just listening to you talk, sitting quietly with you, helping you around the house, or looking after the kids while you look after yourself. Remember though that family and friends are often able to offer support and love, but sometimes their own can grief can get in the way. If this is the case, you may find it particularly helpful to discuss your feelings with someone impartial, such as your GP or a counsellor and/or join a support group.
5) Honouring the Absent Person
Establishing some rituals that honour the person who is no longer there may help you express your grief and also that of the rest of your family. Perhaps young children might want to make a card for the absent person or watch their favourite film? Or make a charitable donation in their name? Or you may want to light a candle or launch a Chinese lantern? As you make Christmas preparations, don’t be afraid to talk about the absent person, using age-appropriate language for children, and share memories with those around you.
I was recently asked to be a panellist on a live online Q&A about workplace stress. The Q&A was hosted by The Guardian’s Small Business Network, and I was really pleased to participate. You can read the full discussion here.
I was especially pleased that one of the other particpant’s seemed to like my 5 Top Tips for managing your own stress levels. i.e. “what steps can I take that will help me better manage the pressure I am under?”. The contributor called them a “template for managers to raise awareness and promote wellbeing in their teams”. And who am I to argue with that? So…here they are:
1) Firstly, and I know I’m going to sound like your doctor now, but try to get some EXERCISE. Even if it’s just a little. You don’t have to run marathons. How about a relaxing swim? Or if, like me, you don’t like the ‘faff’ of getting undressed, wet, dry, and then dressed again – why not try some (very gentle) jogging? There are loads of training plans out there that start you off running for a minute at a time, but gradually build up to ten or even tweny minutes of jogging before you’ve even noticed! Not only does exercise release those feel-good endorphins, etc, it helps regulate sleep. Which brings me on to….
2) Aim to get the SLEEP that you need (whether that’s 3 hours or 9). Try to create a bedtime routine. Make sure your bedroom is not too warm – leave a window open. You’ll know what effect caffeine has on you (if any) – so take that into account. Try to limit ‘screen time’ in the hour or so before bed. The light from a TV, laptop or phone will only confuse your brain into thinking that it’s not actually night time! Leave your smart phone downstairs!
3) Watch your DIET – particularly sugar and alcohol intake, which can have a negative impact on your mood and make bad things seem terrible. If you find yourself waking at 3 or 4am, it may be that your body is experiencing a sugar ‘crash’ from a late-night snack. And I think we all know the effects of too much alcohol on long-term health and short-term dignity! (Or is that just me?!)
4) Learn some RELAXATION techniques. Some of these only take 1 minute and can dramatically improve the physiological symptoms of stress. Breathing exercises, simple meditations, visualisations – these can all have the discernible effect of overcoming the “fight, flight or freeze” reactions our bodies have developed in response to danger. Google is your friend, here.
5) Do something to FEED YOUR SOUL, and do it often. This is a phrase I nicked from my friend and colleague Sarah Edwards. Feeding your soul is a very personal thing. For you it might be listening to a great symphony. Watching your favourite football team. Volunteering in your spare time. If you don’t know what it is that feeds your soul, experiment until you do. It will be a lifesaver.
If you’ve done all of the above, the chances are that you will feel physically refreshed, will be likely to process setbacks more positively, and will be more able to make helpful decisions.
To find out more about my counselling and coaching work in the corporate sector, take a look at my corporate website.
Here’s my personal counselling website, for indiduals who would like some support.
Want to find out more for yourself? Here are two books to check out:
“The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook” – Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman et al
“The Chimp Paradox” – Steve Peters