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Seeking support at work

Recently we asked the Sanctus Coaching team to list the most common things people talk to them about in coaching sessions. The importance of good feedback. The ins and outs of career progression. What to do when you feel like an imposter. This was the last topic on the list: a lack of support at work.

Tough topic to broach, support. Because there are so many different forms of it. You’ve got moral, emotional, and financial support. Physical support, mental support, support of the community. Professional development programs, mentoring schemes, that library of L&D resources at work you never use.

Sadly it’s uncontroversial to suggest meaningful support is missing from the workplace. I mean, pick a stat:

Insufficient or non-existent support in the workplace means employee engagement may suffer and you run an increased risk of absenteeism. People’s experience of work is more likely to be negative and could inspire them to seek a more pleasant, better supported working environment elsewhere. And ultimately, no one typically reaches their full potential without the right support. Some may even find themselves struggling unnecessarily.

But get it right, and the workplace becomes an environment your people can rely on and feel safe in. Give people the support they need and you’re more likely to keep them engaged, hanging on to key figures and top performers for longer. And typically the more support people have, the more tools they have at their disposal to succeed, the better they perform. Which has lasting benefits for businesses in increased output, potentially increased revenue, but also in retaining talent and establishing a working culture people actually want to be a part of.

A working internet connection is a form of support, but we don’t usually think about it in that way. Even simple things have a big impact on our capacity to work, on our health, our sense of ease, how challenging we might find work and life.

I’m reminded of something my Sanctus Coach said to me in one of my first coaching sessions. I was rabbiting on about various life goals I’ve got when Sarah paused and said:

“And let’s say you end up achieving everything you want in life. Who would be happy for you?”

I hadn’t really thought about it before. Being asked the question made me think about my parents. My partner. My nephews. People I’ve worked with in the past, known for years. It made me think there might be support out there I don’t always see or appreciate.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. Albert Viljoen, Coaching Practice Lead at Sanctus, who confirms not seeing or being aware of support is relatively common:

“People don’t think about support in the same way they don’t think about the floor. You walk on it every day without noticing… until it creaks. Or collapses. You have to bring people’s attention to support for them to see it. And then to make proper use of it is another thing entirely.”

What support is available to employees at work?

AV: I can’t speak for individual company policies and benefits packages. But there are two kinds of support: internal and external.

Internal support is: do I have it within me to to do what I need to do? Can I master up the energy, the health, the resourcefulness, the knowledge, the skills to get through whatever I need to get through?

Whereas external support comes from other people. And in some cases, service providers (like Sanctus). Is there a person or group I can lean on, to get me where I need to go?

When people ask for support in coaching, one of the first things we do is work out whether they have enough support either in or around them in order to function.

And then the important thing to remember is that there are degrees of support, with different people needing different things. As individuals, we often underestimate how much support we require, either due to a persistent sense of self belief or a desire to outperform the odds. Culturally, it’s almost a symbol of strength to operate (at least seemingly) without support.

And on the flip side of that, it’s common for people to experience feelings of shame if and when they do choose to reach out and ask for extra help. Or they might feel their sense of achievement is somehow diminished if they’ve made use of any support available to them.

Our default assumption is that I should be competent to do whatever I need to do without any help. And that’s just not true. So I think there is a bit of de-stigmatisation we need to do around recognising actually, the need for support is perfectly natural.

How much does supporting employees cost?

AV: While people often underestimate how much support they need, in my experience businesses overestimate it.

When we think of support, we think of how much it costs. Most businesses are (primarily) profit driven. They can be purposeful and impactful and all those other things, but the lifeblood of any organisation is money. So if you’re costing us, we need to know we’ll get a return on our investment. If I support you, will you make it worth my while? Or will it all be a waste?

First of all, people typically don’t use all the support available to them anyway. You can probably find some research online to back that up. And secondly, it doesn’t need to be expensive. Or some big, intense redesign of how businesses treat their staff.

Often the support we need most is simply moral support, a bit of encouragement. Or for someone to offer us their ear. Or their condolences. Or some well timed praise.

Another thing we don’t always think about is how people and businesses benefit when we give support to each other. For one, it feels good. And two, the value often exceeds any monetary exchange: the sense of community you get from a mutually supportive professional network can be priceless for a lot of people.

How can someone find support at work?

AV: Working with a professional coach can be really helpful. Because we’re encouraged to take stock of and appraise our current situation, including what resources, skills, and people we have around us that we can rely on. If there’s one thing readers should take away, it’s to ask themselves three questions:

  1. What support do I need?
  2. What support is available?
  3. And am I making the most of it?

It’s essential for human beings to have support and feel supported. When we don’t, we should consider it a red flag. If you can’t think of support networks you might have access to then it could be time to reach out to a professional. We have a list of resources we can signpost people to in that instance.

It’s important to bear in mind that there might be people who want, and are willing, to support you. But you haven’t been able to reach them yet.

I often have conversations in the coaching room about support in the workplace. And most of the time, you just have to give people time and space to work out what support they need, what they already have (or don’t have, as the case may be), whether they actually use it, or if they’re a bit ashamed or embarrassed to ask.

How can you improve support at work?

It doesn’t have to be expensive. Managers can make a start by applying a bit more structure and intention to their check ins. Not just adding an extra 5-10 minutes of small talk at the start of a meeting for the sake of it, but really taking the time to connect on a personal level, ask team members if their needs are being met and if not, working out what we can do to meet them.

We’ve developed an approach to leadership coaching which helps managers become the best source of support possible, for both themselves and their teams. Connected Leadership is quite different to traditional manager training programs. We coach people on: cultivating a deeper understanding of employee wants, needs, and motivations; giving considerate feedback and approaching sensitive conversations with care; and spotting signs of struggle in the self and others and providing appropriate relief and support. You can learn more about Connected Leadership here.