“How bad does it need to get before you realise that your people are your biggest asset?” – an interview with Audrey Daumain

Real Impact Executive Audrey Daumain on the importance of bringing humanity and meaning to the workplace

Audrey, you are a Real Impact Executive Coach, what is it that you do?

I have been working in finance for over 22 years, the last decade as Programme and Change manager. I am self-employed now as a Performance Coach. I work with clients and teams mainly in the financial sector and my mission is to bring humanity and meaning back to the workplace. This might need a bit of an explanation. There is a strong perception in business that when you want to achieve something, you will have to leave the things going on in your life at home. A perception that performance is just related to KPIs and actions. I’m focused on turning that around by saying, ‘when I come to work in the morning, I am everything I am, including my sleepless nights with the kids and including my frustrations and including my fears and everything else and that does not make me necessarily perform less, it just makes me human’. Many sectors have started a slow shift to more compassionate leadership, although the financial sector is at the very start of that journey. And compassionate does not rhyme with soft and inefficient. It rhymes with engagement and sustainable performance.

How does your role relate to decisions around occupational or employee mental health offerings and approaches?

Well, very much, since as a Performance Coach I am mostly hired by HR departments. Most of my coachees come via a company. Whilst coaching many employees from the same company, I can identify trends and pain points. With this helicopter view I can consult with HR and management, both in a strategic and a tactical way, such as proposing interventions that I have good experiences with. I would like to add that mental health and well-being are far from being exclusively linked to psychological safety and management styles. I have noticed over the years how badly organised people can get. Knowing how to manage our time, our tasks and our priorities is absolutely key and you can learn that too. I am a keen advocate of the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.

What do you see as challenges with mental well-being in the workplace?

I believe the biggest challenge is underestimation and misunderstanding about the relationship between having a bit of stress at work and becoming seriously ill. There is a stigma related to mental health, associated with negativity, depression, and not being able to work. I come across this every day, I see many people struggle and not taking their situation seriously. They are currently living and working on the edge “I don’t have a choice”. They don’t work in an environment that allows them to scale down a bit and don’t realise they are risking a burn out with long term consequences. I believe that we need to create more awareness on the risk of not signalling help is needed at an early enough stage. This is not as simple as it sounds, since this implies that you need to feel safe to bring this up, and that is what I advocate for, a safe environment in the workplace and I strongly believe that without losing sight of the companies’ mission and objectives, more humanity and meaning helps.

How much priority or focus do you think employee mental health requires?

It should be focus # 1. What I come across in my daily practice is that issues in organisations are not caused because technology doesn’t work; most of the time it boils down to people issues that are not being seen, heard, or not being considered appropriately. This results in conflicts, miscommunication, burn-out, turnover etc.  Companies often tend to cope with this with a, “If you don’t like it here, you are free to go” mentality, they don’t put a lot of effort into supporting employees through their career and personal growth but easily just replace them. I hear this a lot. I believe this is disastrous for a company, let alone a financial drain. In addition to the recruitment fees, there is also the fee for consultants. In the financial Industry it is very common to hire consultants whenever there is a problem, a backlog, or a new project.

I am convinced that if budgets would be allocated better, with more focus on employee training and wellbeing,  then wiser decisions on when to hire consultants and when to staff in-house would be taken and employee engagement and performance will go up. It is almost like practising with a muscle. Financial institutes are used to practising the muscle of paying recruiting firms and consultants. ‘We have a problem; we hire someone or we pay consultants to come in and fix it’. On the other hand, the topic of employee well-being is not something that they’re used to hearing about, to having that muscle to release funds for programs to increase the vitality of their people. It’s time to train this other muscle!

You are a coach, how does coaching impact mental well-being in the workplace?

Well, fortunately I see a lot of companies starting to realise that they must act in an earlier stage, not just intervene when someone is already off track but prevent this from happening.

I’m happy to see that they are starting to shift focus to prevention instead of cure. Coaching has become a very common tool in this, it helps supporting employees with challenges in work and life. It is the positioning of coaching that I would like to work on, because coaching is not just a tool to grab when you have a problem but should be an ongoing tool in your life that helps people feel good and grow as a human being first, and as an employee. Sparring with an independent person without judgement and without any stress to project a certain image really helps people to align and grow. In our current era of multi-dimensional challenges across life and work, and with a generation that is open to being guided, ongoing coaching can prevent people from falling out and unlock an incredible amount lot of potential for their companies. Trusted and empowered employees will follow their managers all the way.

Besides coaching, what else do you think is vital for employee mental-wellbeing?

Related to this is attention for communication style. I am a huge advocate of learning how to communicate better as I see that this can prevent a lot of frustration and leads to more constructive discussions and better solutions. Personally, I am very inspired by John Grinder, co-creator of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Marshall Rosenberg, developer of non-violent communication. Their theories help people to better connect with themselves and others through empathy, ultimately supporting interpersonal relations and conflicts within people. These ideas are interwoven into compassionate leadership programs that are really gaining traction right now.

Do you believe there is a sense of urgency in embedding more humanity in the workplace?

Yes, I do. because at this point of time many companies are facing the same challenges with respect to languishing, turnover and burn out. And there is a lot of bias in self-reflection of management.  I see many companies where management is convinced that their organisation ‘Is not like that’. Too many times something impactful needs to happen, like losing a big client, or a top talent, even a suicide case, before something really changes. Companies often need to lose money or their reputation first before they realise a different approach is a necessity. With what we know in this time, management should know better, because how bad does it need to get before you realise that your people are your biggest asset?

How bad does it need to get before you realise that your people are your biggest asset?

How would an organization benefit from good governance on employee mental health in your view?

Although it is difficult to measure yet,* I believe the impact is huge. When you succeed in building an atmosphere of trust in your organisation, a climate where people act out of conviction and not out of fear, where they feel safe to be who they are and still have the company’s interest at heart. When you have all that in place, you can build engaged teams on all levels, resulting in motivated people working for a shared purpose. Turnover will decrease, costs will go down and business performance will go up.  A lot must be done here but I envision a management dashboard where you see new types of KPIs appear about the time spent with your team, about the well-being scores of your team, about new -potentially non directly work related- initiatives that matter to your team. And then -I will come back to the muscle metaphor to conclude- I envision a future where we all have a trained muscle as it comes to empathy, where there is an authentic interest behind the question ‘How are you today?’, where an employee feels safe (and encouraged) to answer to his manager ‘ “Urgh, thanks for asking. Frankly I am exhausted. I am confused with what I am supposed to be doing lately and I haven’t slept because our baby is teething. I think I’d love a chat when you have a moment’.

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