Early this morning I found myself in Shotover Park just outside Oxford to be interviewed about wildlife and wellbeing. My interviewer, radio presenter Stuart Mabbutt, invited me onto his radio show Going Wild With Wildlife to chat about how the seasons affect my work and business.
Seasons influencing my coaching and mentoring business you might ask. Really?
There is no question that the season we live in makes a huge impact on how we feel. The weather matters a great deal to us, and that’s not just to complain about it! Our social calendar is heavily influenced by the time of year too. We brighten up our long, dark nights of autumn with celebrations like Halloween and Guy Fawkes, and we ring in the New Year on one of the shortest days of winter with great displays of fireworks. They get us out and about in the dark, and make us feel better for it.
The link between wildlife and our wellbeing
How we feel influences our behaviour, judgment and decision making, so yes, the seasons make a difference in my work. Stuart’s question made me think about our relationship with wildlife and nature.
As we walked into Shotover Park, Stuart almost apologetically said there would be noise from the nearby M40 in the interview. I had not noticed the noise because I was busy listening to the birds, which were out in numbers in the early morning sun. Stuart informed me we were listening to a robin a few trees away. The sun lit up the golden grass as we picked our way to a spot near our little robin so we could capture some of its gorgeous song in the background.
Five ways to wellbeing
A comprehensive report on the benefits of different forms of ecotherapy by the charity Mind defines wellbeing as a positive physical, social and mental state. The report lists five, evidence-based ways to wellbeing:
- connecting with others and the world around you
- being active for better physical health
- taking notice of what is happening in the present
- giving your time and help to others activates the reward areas of the brain
- keep learning to increase self-esteem and resilience
Connecting with nature can do all of the above.
‘Ecotherapy’ refers to nature-based, facilitated interventions aimed at improving mental wellbeing. Such interventions can range from nature walks to conservation projects and animal-assisted interventions. They are different from nature-based activities for a general public in that they are specifically aimed to meet certain objectives, such as alleviating depression or overcoming social anxiety.
The report is really worth a read. Here are some of my personal highlights:
- significant increases in perceived positivity were recorded by participants during the projects included in the study
- 55% of participants reported increases in self-esteem and 76% reported an improvement in mood after a single ecotherapy session
- more than 60% reported feeling more of a connection with nature
- many participants also learned more eco-friendly behaviours and had adopted healthier lifestyles
Cutting out the noise
As our interview progressed, we were interrupted by a helicoptre, which was too loud to ignore. No matter: we simply restarted the interview.
There were joggers throwing us curious glances in passing. We waved at them, and they waved back. A mature student from a local college stopped for a chat after spotting us. He usually walked from Littleworth to Oxford for his classes because the walks were a great way to start his day of learning.
We watched a dog or two sniff around the tripod as we were recording the show, mindful that no-one would cock their leg. We discussed the smell of cow pats in the morning, and whether or not horses are simply very large rabbits with two passing park wardens. The jury is still out on that last one.
No-one seemed to notice the M40.
Much is being said and written about the benefits of a healthy work-life balance. The UK saw the recent extension of the right to request flexible working hours. So how is it that in my coaching practice it seems that almost every single client brings it as a theme to improve?
Caveat: the biased view from the coach
Of course, people come to coaching for a reason. I predominantly coach clients in organisations, for example as part of a leadership development programme or as a coach supporting organisational change. Both can do much to upset work-life balance and both present opportunities to re-appraise habits and opportunities to re-balance where necessary.
Work-life balance: some facts
Let’s first have a look at some interesting facts and figures from the the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The OECD’s Better Life Index report found that the UK scores above average when it comes to the percentage of employees working very long hours. 18% of men and 6% of women, together averaging at 12.3%, work more than 50 hours a week.
According to this report, the UK ranks 27 out of 36 of member states. Best ranking? Denmark, also known as the happiest country on earth. Also in the OECD work-life balance rankings top 5 is Norway, rated as the world’s most prosperous country in the world for five years in a row by 2013. There has to be a link!
Indeed, the EOCD report states:
Finding a suitable balance between work and daily living is a challenge that all workers face. Families are particularly affected. […] This is a challenge to governments because if parents cannot achieve their desired work/life balance, not only is their welfare lowered but so is development in the country.
– OECD Better life Index
Work-life balance as a theme in coaching
So, with that in mind, what gets discussed in a session where someone brings work-life balance issues to their coach? Three questions I am often asked in client sessions:
Am I allowed to use my sessions to discuss work-life balance?
This one is a telling question. The asker is looking for the boundaries of what can and cannot be on the coaching agenda as far as their employer is concerned, while also letting me know it is a theme for them personally.
Before I start coaching in an organisation, I always ask what is off the agenda as far as the sponsor (person or organisation who pays for my services) is concerned. Work-life balance is often mentioned as a welcome theme, albeit within boundaries. Many clients arrive at their first session not knowing what to expect, and need to first establish what would be unreasonable to expect their employer to pay for. For many work-life balance is a grey area when it isn’t for their employer.
What can I reasonably ask my manager or employer for?
Many clients discover in a session that they are simply unaware of what their organisation’s policies are when it comes to flexible working. Some people use their sessions to practise having a challenging conversation with their manager. They sometimes need figure out what they really want to achieve to improve their work-life balance, and what they are prepared to concede if a deal needs to be struck.
How do other people achieve a healthy work-life balance?
This theme pops up when people are looking for creativity to solve the problem of work-life balance. Sometimes the client needs my probing questions to recognise examples of successful behaviours they already exhibit in other situations. Sometimes our conversation uncovers successful strategies used by people they know. Occasionally I’ll share some examples from past clients, and use questioning to come up with new ideas for the client to try out.
Coaching for a good work-life balance
Coaching itself is unlikely to solve the problem of work-life balance for clients. It does, however, offer space to explore what strategies might work, while perhaps also getting some insight into what expectations clients may need to let go of.
As a coach I am never qualified to advise on legislation, policy or my client’s Terms of Employment. I also will withhold my personal opinion on what the client should think or do. For each of these needs there are HR professionals, colleagues and friends to help my client! What I am qualified to do though is to talk through options and support my client in finding new ways to balance work with personal time. My role as unbiased outsider fills the gap in the list of helpers above.
How much of a theme is work-life balance for you? And what strategies are you using – successfully or otherwise – to keep the balance?