Be well and prosper

Describes the introduction of health coaching, showing why smart employers are making the link between staff well-being and business success
Sarah-Jane North and Stephen Palmer
Twenty years ago, everybody’s must-have was a personal trainer, someone to write them a fitness programme and shout encouragement from the sidelines. Today’s emerging must-have is the health coach, someone to guide clients through the maze of advice, help them fit health and fitness into their daily lives and encourage them to reach their well-being goals.

A growing number of employers have made the link between the personal health of their staff and business success, and are now offering coaching on health, diet and exercise as part of employee benefits or development packages.

The arrival of the health, wellness or well-being coach comes at a time of ever more startling data and news stories about the sorry state of westerners’ health, particularly the rise of chronic disease, obesity and stress. One factor these conditions share is that they are largely preventable. This is where the health coach can help.

“Wellness coaches are passionate in their commitment to help us be our best, to live our lives with high energy and a positive and confident outlook,” says US-based Margaret Moore, founder of Wellcoaches. Moore describes a health coach as a “skilled partner”, someone who won’t provide all the answers but who will join an individual in creating a vision for their health and well-being and a pragmatic plan to reach that goal.

Areas commonly covered include fitness, nutrition, work-life balance, work styles, organisational culture, emotional intelligence and spirituality. Although health coaching in both the US and the UK is still in its infancy, an explosion is predicted. In 2000, the US-based Wellcoaches Corporation, whose health coach training programme is endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine, trained 100 coaches. Last year it trained 1,000, among them several UK practitioners.

In the US, health coaching often forms part of a wellness programme designed to reduce healthcare claims, make health insurance more affordable and improve the overall health of employees. Research by Hummingbird Coaching Services, which specialises in distance coaching, found that online health coaching was more effective than providing only website information and was probably as effective as telephone coaching for specific areas such as weight reduction.

In health coaching it found that:

  • About 90 per cent of those surveyed reported improved overall health and well-being.
  • 56 per cent reported improved aerobic conditioning by increasing the amount of time spent exercising.
  • 75 per cent reported fewer stress-related physical symptoms than when they began their coaching.
  • 50 per cent reported an increase in their healthy eating choices.
  • 72 per cent of those who lost weight lost more than five pounds, and 40 per cent of smoking cessation clients remained tobacco-free at six months.

Although the data is supplied by the company, the results do seem credible and very encouraging. The Duke University case study shows how group health coaching can be integrated into a comprehensive health programme for employees. A key marketing factor is that health coaching can help to retain executives who might otherwise leave as a result of “stress, burnout and lack of satisfaction”. The incentive for UK firms to use such programmes is less than in the US as healthcare claims and health insurance do not usually enter the equation.

However, executives and other employees are likely to benefit from wellness/well-being programmes and employers may find a decrease in absenteeism and an increase in performance, according to the claims. Peter Brown, managing director of Wellness Management, recently sent his entire team to be trained by Wellcoaches in anticipation of a rise in demand for health coaches in the UK.

Over the past 15 years, Brown has developed health facilities and wellness programmes for organisations including British Gas. He sees health coaching as a natural progression of his existing services: “It is something that has evolved with the recognition that people can’t always change their lifestyles despite the provision of a gym. People need guidance on how to break the cycle and place their health and well-being at the top of their list of priorities.”

David Tinker, director of The Feeling Alive Company, another UK-based health coaching company, works with a number of leading UK businesses, among them property group Lend Lease, that are heeding the warnings about the impact of employee ill-health and absence on the bottom line. Earlier this year, Dame Carol Black, the government’s first national director for health and work, called on employers to help make the UK healthier after her review into the health of the working age population revealed that ill-health was costing £100 billion a year.

Tinker describes the coaching process of the Feeling Alive programme as a “personalised unpicking” of an individual’s life to gain a clear picture of their approach to it. “Some people I have coached are not alive, they have a glazed look and have lost their identity in their work,” he explains. “We create a safe environment for people to really look at their life.”

According to one executive, Tinker’s work has helped to reduce stress levels in his highly pressured, high-performing team and produced big cost savings. “No one who’s done Feeling Alive has gone off sick with stress,” he reports. The programme took £20,000 out of his departmental budget but he believes this cost is negligible compared with the potential losses incurred through lost orders and revenue: potentially £60,000-£70,000 per employee off for three months.

Andrew Kinder, a chartered psychologist, argues that the popularity of the coaching approach to employee health and well-being could be down to language. Seeing a coach is deemed a positive move, while seeing a counsellor is seen to indicate there’s a problem. “The health and well-being language helps organisations say yes to this investment. It sounds better than stress management,” Kinder says.

But while some have dubbed this a new brand of coaching, others feel that covering issues of health and well-being is simply part of what any good coach would do. “If you are coaching all areas of someone’s life then you would check when they last had a personal MOT,” says Dorothy Larios, who runs the Rest of Your Life coaching company, specialising in executive retreats. She warns that every niche attracts those purporting to be professional coaches and, like Moore in the US, advocates close scrutiny of credentials.

Moore’s Wellcoaches training programme is open only to those with an established, certified background in medicine, nutrition, mental health or fitness. “One can do harm if you can’t spot when someone needs assistance from a mental health professional, is exercising on top of an injury, or not taking their medication,” she warns.

Stephen Palmer is director of the Centre for Coaching in London and of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University. Sarah-Jane North is a freelance journalist specialising in HR management, learning and development.

Health check

Before appointing a health coach, make sure they:

  • have coaching credentials from a reputable programme;
  • are an expert in fitness and nutrition or are a qualified health professional;
  • have at least two years’ experience working one-on-one with clients;
  • can provide testimonials;
  • have experiences that are in line with your priorities;
  • will offer an initial free telephone consultation between client and coach to ensure compatibility.

Feeling alive – the holistic lens

“We have achieved a real shift in thinking,” says Mirka Packard of her company’s experience of the Feeling Alive programme. Packard is regional manager, EMEA, of the Lend Lease Foundation, set up in 1983 to provide opportunities for the development and well-being of all employees for the benefit of themselves, their families and their wider communities.

Packard says the programme is part of a culture change programme being spread throughout the organisation: “We’re looking at our employees through an holistic lens, as people who have lives outside of work. The programme complements our organisational values today.”

Although the first Feeling Alive programme in 2006 was open to anyone who wanted to attend, the foundation has since targeted the firm’s senior executives in what it hopes will be a top-down chain of influence to encourage everyone to take care of their health. So far, 50 top managers have attended, with another 50 set to do so this year.

Delegates leave the programme with a tailored action plan to improve their own and their team’s well-being. “It’s about leadership awareness and their personal accountability for wellness,” explains Packard, “and the impact of their leadership styles on the wellness of their teams.”

Raising prospects at Duke University

Duke University in the US offered its 30,000 employees and dependants a “prospective” health programme rather than a more traditional “preventative” approach. Similar to a business plan, employees develop a personal health plan and can monitor their personal health tracker online.

Although assessment questionnaires can be completed online, employees can visit the two offices at Duke Prospective Health and LIVE For LIFE. Incentives are given to employees to complete the health risk assessment, such as a $25 gift card. They are also entered in a monthly draw for a $250 prize package such as a six-month gym membership or a gift certificate to a day spa.

Group health coaching forms part of a comprehensive programme. The health care coach works with participants on health-related issues. Forms on coaching goal-setting and group preparation can be downloaded from the website. Electronic and telephone coaching are also available. Free seminars include: “I quit! What to do when you’re sick of smoking, chewing, or dipping”.

Duke Prospective Health’s website says: “During the first two years of Prospective Health, individuals in the high-risk group had a 3.5 per cent decrease in medical costs. This saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses for the health insurance plans paid for by Duke and employee premiums.

Duke has also seen reductions in the number of emergency room visits and the length of hospital stays. Such indicators are helping Duke to keep its medical costs, and thus its premiums for health insurance, well below national and regional trends.”

Further information


  • N H Mayerson, Online Coaching: Lessons Learned, Cincinnati: Hummingbird Coaching Services, 2006.
  • L Landro, “Preventive medicine gets more aggressive: the health coach”,
  • The Wall Street Journal Online, 12 February 2004.
  • Dame Carol Black’s report, Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, is available at
  • A Kinder, R Hughes and CL Cooper, Employee Well-being Support:
  • A Workplace Resource, John Wiley & Sons, 2008.


Volume 3, Issue 4