It’s official: coaching can enhance resilience, which in turn is linked to greater wellbeing. Carmelina Lawton Smith explores the research
As we approach what may become one of the most turbulent periods for UK organisations, many are looking to build the emotional resilience of their workforce.
Resilience has been a hot topic over recent years partly because higher resilience is often linked to greater levels of wellbeing. Personal resilience has been described as the capacity to maintain or recover high levels of wellbeing in the face of life adversity. Much advice and information has been offered from organisations such as the CIPD (2018) and Deloitte (2015).
While many recommendations focus on the organisational perspective in relation to HR strategy, and suggest training to boost emotional resilience, less is said about how coaching can support employee resilience. In this article I will review recent findings that demonstrate how coaching can help enhance resilience.
The need to build the emotional resilience of the workforce has been highlighted by recent figures which show that in 2017/18 stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 57% of all working days lost to ill-health – 15.4 million days with an average of more than 25 days per case (HSE).
A number of texts focus on the use of coaching to address resilience (Pemberton, 2015; Green & Humphrey, 2012; Lawton Smith, 2017b) and evidence is growing that many alternative coaching approaches can help increase resilience.
Grant et al. (2009) found a 20-week cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach enhanced manager resilience and Sherlock-Storey et al. (2013) also reported increased manager resilience following a Brief Coaching intervention. Further research is emerging on the value of mindfulness in the coaching context (Virgili, 2013; Hall, 2013) including for resilience, while numerous studies show that even brief mindfulness programmes can decrease burnout symptoms and increase life satisfaction (Mackenzie et al, 2006).
What’s interesting from these studies is that different coaching approaches appear to support resilience, suggesting that coaching offers some common aspects in building resilience.
Lawton Smith (2015) sheds some light on these common elements by gathering data from leaders who’d been coached but not specifically for resilience. The data revealed coaching supported their resilience in five ways:
- Rebuilding self-belief Constant challenges can lead to self-doubt and a loss of inner confidence.
- Learning personal coping strategies Learning new strategies in relation to self-discovery helped them apply the most suitable coping techniques.
- Seeing the wider perspective Stressful times can lead to a narrowing of perspective; the coach provided new ways of seeing things.
- Supportive relationship In difficult times many feel they cannot share thoughts or feelings at work and are unwilling to burden friends and family. The independent sounding board provided by the coach gave emotional release.
- Thinking space Coaching gave them ‘permission’ for focused reflection and they valued the time to be able to think through and vocalise concerns, emotions or thoughts.
Timson (2015) gathered data from a more structured resilience coaching programme and identified similar themes. Participants noted the value of tools and techniques they’d learnt in dealing with the highly pressured environment they found themselves in.
This group also mentioned the value of the time and space that the coaching sessions gave them, and the importance of the independent supportive relationship with the coaches. One wonders if a group training context would offer this same support, however the factors identified might be common to many forms of coaching – it doesn’t seem necessary to use a specific resilience model to inform the coaching to enhance resilience.
Many resilience models exist that might be used to inform resilience coaching, but perhaps we need a more generic approach that can be adopted by coaches, whatever their particular coaching style. One possible answer is to avoid the list-like approach of many resilience models and focus instead on two themes: capacity and capability (Lawton Smith, 2017a).
Capability is defined as the skills or attributes that can help us deal with challenging times. This might include the ability to reframe events, define areas of control and use things like relaxation or mindfulness techniques. The research clearly demonstrates that learning techniques and increased self-awareness about personal triggers can help. However, many senior leaders are well versed in such skills and techniques and still experience resilience issues.
I suggest the missing piece is the Capacity to be resilient. It’s difficult to be resilient if you’re unmotivated, exhausted or physically unwell. To apply the learnt skills and techniques, individuals need the physical energy and willpower to engage them. This can only be achieved by working on the supporting energy system – something coaching is well placed to do.
As coaching often works at the individual level to uncover core values, motivators and potential blocks, it can help individuals understand and manage their own emotional reactions and understand the personal energy system that might need to be worked on. For many leaders used to powering through challenges, it can be a shock when the body runs out of steam. Others find their resilience depleted because they’re no longer committed to the organisational cause due to a clash of values (Lawton Smith, 2017a).
Resilience isn’t just about learning a set of tools and techniques, it requires awareness and understanding. Thus the confidential supportive relationship provided by a coach can be a valuable organisational investment.
- Dr Carmelina Lawton Smith is an independent coach and associate lecturer with the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University Business School. Contact:
- Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Health and Well-Being at Work, 2018. http://bit.ly/2CpfK8T
- Deloitte, Willing and Abel – Building a Crisis Resilient Workforce, 2015 http://bit.ly/2QSBtLN
- A Grant, L Curtayne and G Burton, ‘Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being: a randomised controlled study,’ in The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), pp396-407, 2009
- A Green and J Humphrey, Coaching for Resilience: A Practical Guide to Using Positive Psychology, London: Kogan Page, 2012
- L Hall, Mindful Coaching, London: Kogan Page, 2013
- HSE, Work Related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain, 2018 http://bit.ly/2RnyOK6
- C Lawton Smith, ‘How coaching helps leadership resilience: The leadership perspective,’ in International Coaching Psychology Review, 10(1), pp6-19, 2015
- C Lawton Smith, ‘Coaching for leadership resilience: An integrated approach,’ in International Coaching Psychology Review, 12(1), pp6-23, 2017a
- C Lawton Smith, ‘Coaching for resilience and well-being,’ Ch. 19 in
Bachkirova, T, Spence, G and Drake, D (Eds), The SAGE Handbook of Coaching, London: Sage, 2017b
- C Mackenzie, P Poulin and R Seidman-Carlson, ‘A brief mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention for nurses and nurse aids,’ in Applied Nursing Research, 19(2), pp105-109, 2006
- C Pemberton, Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Maidenhead: McGraw Hill, 2015
- M Sherlock-Storey, M Moss and S Timson, ‘Brief coaching for resilience during organisational change – an exploratory study’, in The Coaching Psychologist, 9(1), pp19-26, 2013
- S Timson, ‘Exploring what clients find helpful in a brief resilience coaching programme: A qualitative study,’ in The Coaching Psychologist, 11(2), pp81-88, 2015
- M Virgili, ‘Mindfulness-based coaching: Conceptualisation, supporting evidence and emerging applications,’ in International Coaching Psychology Review, 8(2), pp40-57, 2013