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Is Coaching the Missing Component in Employers' Well-Being Strategy?


A woman sitting in a chair and meditating.


​There's no question that employee well-being has taken a big hit over the past few years.

About five years ago, 10 percent of workers reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. Now that has risen to 40 percent, said Brad Cooper, CEO of Denver-based health and wellness coaching provider Catalyst Coaching 360, speaking April 17 during a session at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2023 in Orlando.

"It's out there, it's accepted and it's being talked about," he said of mental health. Yet there are several challenges when it comes to addressing mental health problems. For one thing, many people are still reluctant to get help. Forty-seven percent of people perceive visiting a counselor or a therapist as a sign of weakness, 30 percent don't feel their problems are that big, and 32 percent believe people can handle problems on their own, he explained. Meanwhile, employees are still struggling with virtually all aspects of their well-being, from physical and mental health to financial and social well-being.

So how can employers help move the needle? One underused strategy to address and improve well-being is employee coaching.  

At its crux, Cooper said, "coaching is expertise and behavior changes drawing out of you what matters to you, and helping you then take whatever that thing is and move to the next level." Employees typically have access to a coach with whom they can touch base at various times throughout the week, most commonly for 30-minute sessions, so they can get support during higher-stress periods. During coaching sessions, employees can set priorities, talk through challenges and create a personal vision for well-being.

Coaches, with the employee, can discuss a number of strategies, including stress management ideas, sleep enhancement tactics, resilience and mindfulness techniques, healthy eating tips, burnout prevention ideas, exercise or activity goals, or professional or personal pursuits.

"It's all of these things, and it's driven by that individual, by the employee. It's not driven by the coach," Cooper explained. "The coach doesn't look at you and say, 'You know, I'm thinking you probably need to work on [this or that].' "

It's not to say counseling and other mental health assistance aren't important in helping employees improve their well-being, Cooper said, but coaching is a way to complement counseling. "You can bring those together to be more effective in your outcomes to support your employees," he said. "The support of one to the other is an unbelievable combination, if we do it correctly."

When it comes to coaching versus counseling, coaching is like snorkeling, he said: You're on the surface, you may chat about some stuff under the surface. But it's really talking about action and moving forward. "What's the next step? What's that behavior change that we're looking for?" Cooper explained. "How do we create this in your life, specific to you, and not some just generic model that maybe works in the textbook somewhere?"

Coaches are often nationally board-certified individuals, and the process is typically more action-oriented than counseling.

Counseling, or talking to a licensed mental health professional, is like scuba diving, Cooper said: It's the deep stuff, such as talking about your family of origin, past trauma, grief and loss issues, or major life transitions. Counseling can help employees address anxiety and depression impacting work or home and is the best strategy for clients with significant mental health challenges.

Coaching, in addition to counseling, can have a tremendous impact on both employees and employers, Cooper said. For instance, employees who participated in coaching were 2.3 times less likely to use extended illness benefits, he said, and were nearly 10 percent less likely to leave their organization. Coaching participants also had 62 percent fewer emergency room visits than nonparticipants.

"If we just do a few basic behavior things—some minor modifications—the outcomes across the board can improve," Cooper said. "If you can move the dial just a little bit in just a few categories, your results will be significant."

All this can give a big boost to HR leaders, who are often tasked with trying to improve these markers and help improve employees' well-being.

How can employers ensure success if they choose to implement a coaching program? Cooper suggests five basic tips:

  • Know why you're offering a coaching program to your employees.
  • Confirm the credibility of your coaching partner. The National Board for Health Wellness Coaching, for instance, requires coaches to undergo a certain credit program, he said.
  • Clearly distinguish the roles of coaching and counseling for employees.
  • Create meaningful incentives to drive interest in the program—such as a premium discount or a gift card.
  • Culturize coaching in your workplace. "[Employees should know] if you work here, you have your own coach to work on whatever you want to improve," he said.

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