Coached, Present and Accounted For

Absence to Presence

This article suggests that the problems of absenteeism in large organisations are best addressed in a proactive rather than reactive manner. Particularly employees in high stress, high-responsibility positions can, through a systematic process of performance coaching, be provided with emotional and psychological strategies to manage the stressors that often underpin absenteeism.

Along with helping reduce absenteeism rates, performance coaching improves the functioning of people when they are at work. In other words, performance coaching not only reduces absence but also increases “presence” (i.e. levels engagement in the tasks and roles being performed).

Absenteeism and “Ill healthcare”

“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.”   Plato

In 2009 an article in the Guardian described a government-commissioned study which revealed that absenteeism due to sick leave had cost the NHS service £1.7 billion in just one year. The report said that just a 33% reduction in absenteeism would lead to an annual cost savings of over half a billion pounds.

It is 2011, two years after the study was released, and the NHS is facing unprecedented challenges, with structural and policy changes, and budget and staff cuts hovering like dark clouds over employee morale.

Considering the relationship between psychological/emotional distress and a compromised immune system, the stage is set for an ongoing cycle of stress related illnesses and increased staff absenteeism in the NHS.

Many organisations face this same challenge today. Attending to both the emotional and physical wellbeing of employees is increasingly a bottom-line issue.

The above report revealed that many NHS staff had pushed themselves to meet their work commitments even when they were feeling really unwell. This bears testimony to the levels of commitment and accountability of many healthcare workers who make tremendous sacrifices to provide quality care to patients.

However, of the 11000 NHS staff members that participated in the study, over 80% admitted that their ill health had affected the quality of care given to patients when they were at work.

Consider any organisation where customer care and service relationships are a primary and the same dynamic is at work. In short, a lower absenteeism rate may not necessarily result in higher quality services and performance.

Increasing productivity is far more complex than just getting people to be at work more. The cost of official sick leave is relatively easy to calculate and quantify, but the cost of stress and illness-compromised services may be far more significant and widespread than we realise.

Yes, we need to find ways of reducing absenteeism, but another important question may be, “How do we equip and support stressed employees when they are at work?” If proactive interventions are not considered, employees are faced with a perpetual cycle of stress-related absenteeism or poor performance and work dissatisfaction:

Do I keep going back to work where I’m feeling really tired and overwhelmed and can’t cope… and eventually get too sick to carry on? Or do I call in sick for a few days… only to then get back to work with even more pressure from all the backlog?

And what will really be different when I eventually go back to work?

I’ll be better for a while, but how long before I’m back to square one?

Employee-Workplace Interface

At the risk of stating the obvious, something happens in the interface between employees and their work environments/relationships that either promotes well-being and productivity or diminishes health and therefore effectiveness. On both sides of the “employee-workplace interface” changes need to occur before the problems of absenteeism and low productivity can be fully addressed.

Creating change in large, multi-level workplace environments (such as a national healthcare system) can be a daunting prospect, since there are complex structural, interpersonal and financial factors that influence what can and cannot happen.

Fortunately there are sophisticated interventions that identify collective barriers to better organisational functioning. But these systemic interventions must always go hand in hand with a focus on individual barriers and potentials.

Performance coaching is well suited to equip employees with strategies to better manage the stressors and challenges contained within the complex individual-workplace interface.

Employee Emotional Health

So how do we equip people with the strategies and resources to manage their increasingly stressful work environments?

The abovementioned report went on to recommend certain solutions to the problems of absenteeism in the NHS, including regular health checks and counselling for staff.

On the positive side, there seems to have been an acknowledgement that both physical and emotional or psychological issues are at play in the high rates of absenteeism. Health checks can certainly identify illness early and help employees get appropriate treatment, but anybody can recognise that this is a highly reactive and ‘first-degree’ solution that does not address the root cause of the symptom (literally and figuratively).

So is counselling the way to go?

Although traditional counselling or therapy provides individuals with a supportive context within which to process and debrief the stressors of their personal and work relationships, for many there is a negative stigma attached to this intervention.

In a progressive and psychologically sophisticated society we might expect people to be open to, and comfortable with, counselling as a valid strategy for managing their work-related emotional stress. But, there still exists a perception that counselling is a last resort for those who “aren’t really coping”. And even those who would say “I’m just not coping” might consider counselling “rather extreme”.

Basically, the counselling paradigm poses two problems.

Firstly, counselling is still perceived and used as a remedial and reactive ‘crisis management’ strategy, rather than a development intervention that can improve employee performance and resilience. This means that employees tend to get support only once they are in some form of “ill health”, which makes counselling (as with health checks) a reactive rather than proactive intervention.

This often means that much money and time is invested in ‘recovering’ rather than in improving or enhancing.

Secondly, many employees who would greatly benefit from a strategic professional and personal development process never have access to it. This is because, in a sense, things aren’t yet viewed as being quite “bad enough to warrant intervention. Just as those who are still able to come to work are not necessarily functioning well, those who have not yet needed counselling may be functioning well below potential.

Just think of someone in your workplace who is maybe getting on people’s nerves, or who seems perpetually overwhelmed, but does just enough to stay out of real trouble or to avoid taking sick leave.

So is there an alternative?

Performance Coaching towards Emotional Intelligence

When we think of performance coaching we may at first think of only big corporates and top business executives, but performance coaching is about equipping and developing any person.

Performance coaching is a systematic strategy for improving employee performance by shifting employees out of their self-defeating habits, while harnessing their natural potential and skills.

Building on a foundation of scientific research, psychological theory and human development models, performance coaching aims to empower individuals to not only avoid ever getting to “bad enough for counselling”, but also to help them become their best professional selves.

As stated at the start of this article, coaching aims to not only reduce stress levels and resultant absenteeism, but also to increase the level of “presence” (or motivated engagement) of employees who are at work.

Coaching helps employees remove the intrapersonal barriers (e.g. thinking patterns, beliefs, emotional sore spots etc.) and interpersonal barriers (e.g. defensiveness, criticism, withdrawal, conflict avoidance etc.) that lead to ‘relational distress’ or prevent them from engaging with more presence and motivation in their workplace relationships.

Many of the daily challenges faced by employees relate not only to high work demands, but also to the relationship-based nature of the services they provide together with their colleagues.

Work is often about working with people (colleagues and clients) to provide a comprehensive service. This makes it vitally important that people are equipped with the emotional and social competencies required to manage not only ‘client psychology’, but also their own reactions to the client-provider and colleague-to-colleague relationships.

Considering this, performance coaching must focus primarily on developing the emotional intelligence of individuals. Ideally, emotional intelligence-based performance coaching will simultaneously address the intrapersonal and interpersonal barriers to improved performance and work satisfaction.


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