What happens when illness or death come calling? Eve Turner talks to David Lane, Jo Mountain, Jan Stannard and Sue Harris

For many of us, death or incapacitation, and end-of-life care may not be something we want to consider or spend too much time thinking about as coaches, mentors of supervisors.

We’re all individuals of course, and cultural practice will vary, but over the last few months, when I’ve raised the question of preparations in the event of stopping work, quite frequently people have either not considered it, or believed their partner or other family member would deal with it.

This lack of consideration isn’t surprising given that research shows the majority of adults (around 55%) in the UK, as one example, don’t have a personal will (Canada Life, 2020; Kings Court Trust, 2018). The Covid-19 pandemic has led to many more enquiries about will-writing but whether this has resulted in increased percentages isn’t yet known.

Jan Stannard, founder, Professional Executor Service, points out: “If you were to die suddenly while in practice, or be incapacitated without warning, there would be lots for family and friends to deal with, at a time when they will be overwhelmed by grief or by all that comes with caring for someone who is seriously ill.”

This is underlined by the case study (see below), where the coach died unexpectedly and had no professional arrangements in place. It left their grieving family to deal with client fallout, in phone calls and emails, wondering why appointments had been missed, no contact made and what they should do now.

However, as Professor David Lane, core faculty at Professional Development Foundation, and visiting professor at Middlesex University and Canterbury Christ Church University, emphasises, end-of-life care is also an important consideration for us as practitioners,

“For example, where a long-term decline in health is identified, you may continue to work but be less able to fulfil all roles. Although sudden death needs to be addressed, end-of-life care is a complex task leaving family and business partners with difficult decisions.”

Some people choose to make a living will and Sue Harris, a therapist and coach, has kindly shared a template that she has developed for this. It provides a helpful check of the sort of things we may overlook – would someone know where to find our passwords, for example? One of Stannard’s clients felt that preparing for the possibility of incapacitation was beneficial in the here-and-now: “Doing this had the positive effect of improving aspects of my record-keeping and practice administration.”

Another wrote: “I did feel relief! Previously I had had an arrangement with my supervisor to contact my clients if I were incapacitated, but I couldn’t ask her to shut down my profiles etc, if I died, so that would have been left to my husband … I am confident this meets my professional obligations and what I want to happen to make this as straightforward as possible for the people affected – clients, supervisees, and my loved ones.”

If I’m honest [Eve Turner], I’d say the same about improving my administration. I’ve updated my contracts with the information, talk to all new and existing clients about it [coachees and supervisees] and try to make the conversations seem ‘routine’, which of course it may not feel like given the cultural reticence for some of us.

And while writing this article I’ve found more things I need to plan for such as practical ones like email auto-responders, social media and closing bank accounts (with thanks to the article contributors and a BACP journal piece on private practice, 2016).

But as David Lane makes clear, the challenges go beyond financial and professional considerations to qualitative ones which can be very hard to deal with. From coaching clients around these issues, he notes the difficulty surrounding long-term decline where our capacity is diminished, and family and business partners may need to step in.

Professor Lane offers these reflections:

  • How might a gradual exit from the business be managed and clients supported?
  • How might leadership of the business be shared during declining health?

He reminds us that delivery of end-of-life care is a major problem for GPs and health and social care providers, with issues that include:

  • How co-ordination of care and communication between family, business and across health and social care professionals is discussed
  • Support for bereavement for family and business partners and possibly long-term clients
  • Continuity of care as the condition changes

It’s interesting to note that the Global Code of Ethics, whose signatories include the AC, APECS and EMCC, includes this clause:

2.28 Members are required to have a provision for transfer of current clients and dissemination of records in the event of the member’s incapacitation, or termination of practice.

Personally, I can’t recall this being discussed in training programmes, or in CPD sessions, yet I consider it an essential part of our contracting and practice. Believing this area is important, the Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision (APECS) has introduced a simple question on its accreditation and renewal forms to encourage reflection:

Do you have provision in place for your clients in the event of your incapacitation (such as serious illness or unexpected death) or termination of practice? Y/N

APECS has included this often-neglected topic in its ‘How To…’ series on key topics in coaching. On 7 July, a panel of those involved in this article will join a conversation with coaches, mentors and supervisors and answer questions and explore implications on incapacitation or termination of practice. APECS members responding to the question above will be invited to consider this topic as part of their development and offered free access to the session recording.

This article has only skated the surface of an important topic. And I’ve been aware of my own discomfort writing it, which has been instructive. While we all know with certainty that we’ll die – or depending on our beliefs, will leave our current form – we tend to believe that it’ll happen ‘tomorrow’ so we put off making arrangements like these.

The 15 tips (below) demonstrate ways we can prepare for this now and in the words of the Buddha: “… What we do today is what matters most.”

  • Eve Turner is an author and award-winning accredited Master coach and supervisor. She is chair of APECS, co-founder of the Climate Coaching Alliance and lead and founder of the Global Supervisors’ Network.

15 tips to help prepare for your termination of practice

1  Don’t panic – take time now to consider steps you’d like to make and form a plan in the event of your serious illness, or death

2 Appoint an executor(s) and ensure your family and clients know about the arrangement

3 Ideally, put a professional or living will in place, independently witnessed and signed

4 Make sure you’ve left instructions for quick access to a list of client contacts and where it’s held. You may choose for the instructions to the executor(s) to be timeless, ie, do not include specific client details and just where to find records, etc. But if you’re providing and updating this client list and sharing it while you’re practising, ensure you have your clients’ consent (data protection)

5 Consider data protection (such as GDPR in Europe) in all you do, including a rationale for your note-taking, as this will help your executor(s) – for example, if you only produce anonymised notes you can tell clients as part of contracting that they’ll be destroyed in the event of your termination of practice

6  Make a diary note to review this regularly – at least annually

7 Consider what initial support might be needed for clients, family and business colleagues in dealing with deterioration in your mental capacity and physical wellbeing or death

8 Consider whether you’d want clients to be given suggestions for alternative practitioners, and if you do prepare a list, ensure you have the consent of the practitioners

9  Have a process in place for promptly cancelling forthcoming appointments, ensuring the person has access to your diary. This may well need to be done by phone and prepare the person calling for the possibility that clients could be distressed and be sure that they will have the resilience, skills and time to do this

10 Have a process for dealing with emails so that they don’t sit unanswered, with pre-notified password access to a trusted person and a pre-written auto-responder that you’ve prepared, but only once all current clients have been contacted

11  Keep important contact information in a known place, for example, for your supervisor and any professional colleagues so they can be informed. This includes professional bodies you may have membership of or accreditation with

12  Ensure the executor(s) knows where your professional indemnity insurance policy is and informs your insurers. Check your policy to ensure that the type you have will provide cover during your incapacity or after your death

13  Consider how your website and social media pages will be changed to reflect the situation and make sure your representative has access to your accounts. Pre-agreed wording will make this process more straightforward

14 Consider your finances – examples are bank accounts, direct debits and required tax payments. Your executor will need to confirm your accountant and stop/make payments as needed and close accounts as needed

15  Consider whether you wish to invite some or all of your clients and/or professional colleagues to your funeral or memorial, and leave instructions for this

Sources: Jan Stannard, founder of Professional Executor Service and Jo Mountain, associate director of Howden Insurers

Case study

A practising coach in Europe with a terminal illness diagnosis did not believe or wish the diagnosis to be accurate, therefore they didn’t professionally address either the possibility of:

  • illness incapacitation
  • death
  • and what either scenario might mean for clients.

Very sadly the practising coach:

  • first became extremely sick and, in consequence, absent
  • then passed away leaving their clients unaware, unprepared and in shock

The practising coach didn’t have a current supervisor nor any plans in place for their own sudden and distressing departure. Clients then contacted the grieving family members for answers/confirmation of notes’ destruction/where to go for help and so on.

Are you and your colleagues, students, supervisees prepared?

This study draws on real cases which are disguised to protect confidentiality

A Living Will template*


*Courtesy of therapist and coach Sue Harris