Let the coach take the strain

As winter’s tunnel looms, academics would do well not to retreat into lonely silos, says Alison Newby

November 22, 2018
Light at the end of the tunnel
Source: iStock

Report after report points to worsening mental health among academics across the world. In the UK, stress has got so bad that one individual tragically took his own life earlier this year after being asked to mark 418 exam papers within a 20-day period.

Now that, in the northern hemisphere, we’re deep into the ever-shorter, darker days of the first semester, working life can feel particularly heavy going. Why, then, are scholars seemingly so unmoved by the old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved? As an academic who also coaches in a higher education institution, I’m intrigued.

Coaching is an accepted developmental offering in many universities, and its utility is widely attested to by university executives. But it seems to have something of an image problem among the rank and file. Coaching is sometimes mistakenly associated with either failing individuals who are not capable in their job or go-getting executives in private companies pumping themselves up to conquer the world. Many of us just don’t perceive ourselves in those ways.

Then there’s the emphasis on achieving radical change and positivity put about by the ubiquitous self-help gurus. This, too, can easily be confused by the uninitiated with coaching, but rose-tinted optimism is like a red rag to the academic bull. We have been conditioned to search out the downsides to create balance.

Another possibility is that the resistance is tied up with the nature of academic life itself. Many scholars and researchers are, of necessity, individualists, having established their claims to expertise through many years of hard, lonely graft. We all need to steel ourselves into seeming to ooze confidence if we’re to stand up for our ideas in the face of inevitable challenge and to cope with the ever-increasing demands on our energy and time.

Studies show that, in reality, impostor syndrome is pervasive. Nevertheless, individuals are highly unlikely to admit to problems. We are socialised into believing that asking for help is equivalent to admitting weakness.

Then there is the fact that most qualified coaches in higher education have backgrounds in professional support services and human resources. Academics see these as worlds apart from their own milieux, incorporating different styles of thinking and communication.

But academics are missing a trick. A rare study of coaching specifically among academics, published in 2010, found that the practice provides a much-needed confidential “safe space”, in which academics can express themselves regarding issues too sensitive to bring up in other personal or professional relationships.

Its power is based on the coach’s ability to bring to the client’s attention observations gleaned from deep, non-judgemental listening, incisive questioning and empathetic reading of both verbal and non-verbal communication. Coaching conversations are especially suited to exploring – and sometimes challenging – clients’ raison d’être: their priorities and their aspirations.

The study found that exploring hidden assumptions and thinking patterns allows individuals to identify those that may be hindering them. This helps them to recalibrate their emotional reactions to “difficult” people and situations, such as institutional restructuring. Insight is promoted into what individuals can actually control in life, moving them towards identification of workable options regarding what to do next.

Facilitated exploration of self and values also increases confidence and can empower individuals to identify boundaries they wish to establish in their lives. For academics, these commonly relate to the allocation of time and energy in their roles, including aspects of workload management and delegation. Particular benefits come when thinking through the implications of seeking or accepting new roles, developing expertise, expanding horizons, or just speculating about the future.

So my advice to all academics feeling under siege as both workload and winter close in would be to link up with a coach who understands the academic and wider higher education contexts, and to do it well before your mental health begins to deteriorate through rumination and stress.

Coaching is neither counselling nor a silver bullet, but engaged in early, it can transform lives.

Alison Newby is an honorary research associate at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre at the University of Manchester and part of the university’s internal coaching team.

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