Can coaching combat stress at work?

Coaching is increasingly being used by organisations to improve performance, facilitate learning and underpin rapid organisational change. Although not typically thought of as a stress reduction tool, recent studies have suggested it might be indirectly useful.1

Could coaching represent an untapped resource for employers to improve psychological health? There has been little research into coaching and stress, but what there is suggests it is definitely an area worth considering.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), more than half a million people in the UK currently experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill, and the reported incidence is rising.2 Stress has become a significant issue in terms of reduced productivity, lost time through sickness absence and disruption to business. Most recently, stress arising from overwork and insufficient coaching was cited as one of the most common hidden reasons why employees leave US organisations.3

Stress

Arguably, stress has yet to be adequately defined. Early psychologists described it as an individual physiological reaction (stimulus-response).4 More contemporary approaches emphasise the transactional nature of the stress process, suggesting that stress arises through an imbalance between the employee and their work environment.5

The HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed upon them’,6 whereas others advocate a more cognitively based approach, highlighting individual perceptions of stress.7 This approach is perhaps more relevant when thinking about the coaching process, as it explains that ‘stress occurs when the perceived pressure exceeds your ability to cope’.

Coaching

The field of coaching at work is diverse and eclectic. Models vary according to the training, preferences and background of the practitioner involved. But most people agree that coaching is a practically based, personally tailored partnership that is time limited and involves action planning, goal setting and achieving results.

Coaching skills include active listening, purposeful questioning, and providing helpful and objective feedback. The client, or ‘coachee’, is responsible for making progress towards achieving defined goals.

Essentially, coaching is a process of equipping people with the tools, confidence, knowledge and opportunities necessary for more effective self-development.

Organisations typically use coaching to improve competence and job performance, or increase motivation and job satisfaction. It is also used to boost creativity and improve problem solving. It can facilitate career development, increase communication and networking opportunities and improve cross-functional working.

Because of its unique characteristics, coaching is especially well suited to helping individuals develop their interpersonal skills. For example, managers frequently report that people-oriented encounters involving the emotional behaviour of others can be demanding and inherently stressful.

Feedback-based approaches such as coaching are well suited to improving self-insight and supporting the acquisition of soft skills.

Despite a frustrating lack of quantitative evidence to demonstrate any direct link between coaching and reduced levels of stress, results from case studies and qualitative research papers have consistently yielded positive results.8 Inconsistencies may arise from small study samples and poor experimental design, but are also likely to be reflective of the difficulties associated in trying to measure complex constructs such as stress using a quantitative methodology.

More research is needed to aid our understanding. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile considering how coaching might influence the experience of work-related stress.

Important clues emerge from the related social sciences literature, suggesting that effects are likely to occur in three interdependent ways:

  • Through social support
  • By moderating the process of cognitive appraisal
  • By providing a dynamic, goal-oriented learning experience.

Social support

The benefits of coaching may come almost entirely from the relationship with the coach. Coachees consistently confirm that having a good rapport with their coach is integral to success. Research shows that the social support a person receives (or perceives they are receiving) has an impact on their appraisal of stressful events and therefore their ability to cope. This is why having a supportive boss, or good relations with colleagues, is so important if you are faced with potentially stressful situations at work.

Social support is important in two ways. Firstly, it directly influences psychological, physiological and behavioural reactions. Secondly, it can have a buffering effect on the relationship between stressors and stress reactions, so the presence of stressors doesn’t lead to negative (or less negative) health outcomes.9

Social relationships can support individuals by diverting their attention, helping them exert situational control, or by providing advice about how to reinterpret a situation to make it less stressful.

The latter relates directly to the notion that we construct and assimilate ‘cognitive schema’ or core beliefs, values and assumptions which are responsible for driving much of our behaviour.10 These beliefs are especially vulnerable to disruption at times of stress or trauma.11 Therefore, coaching may encourage people to re-focus negative thinking following major change, trauma or periods of intense pressure.

There is also a considerable body of evidence linking the beneficial effects of social support with improved physical health, such as lowered blood pressure, and lowered morbidity and mortality risks.12 The attenuating effects of social support on cardiovascular reactivity to stress were demonstrated in a study.13 Baseline blood pressure and heart rate measurements were recorded for study participants at rest, and repeated after they had performed a stressful laboratory task, such as making a speech, or doing mental arithmetic.

Post-test readings were found to be lower when participants received verbal praise or offers of information or general support. However, other studies have presented conflicting and contrasting results. According to O’Donovan & Hughes,14 this suggests the type of support needed is dependent on the recipients’ requirements at the time.

For example, in 1990, Sarason et al 15 categorised three different types of support – tangible, informational and emotional. Each one is required in different measure, by different people, at different times. In coaching, any perceived mismatch between the support needed and that provided could result in coachee resistance or conflict between both parties.

In these circumstances, the coaching intervention may fail or be branded a waste of time. Ultimately, the coaching may actually increase levels of distress felt and be harmful to health.

Cognitive appraisal

Coping is a process by which an individual attempts to minimise the negative emotions arising from the experience of stressful events. The exact nature of these emotions stems from the individual’s cognitive appraisal of the precipitating event.16 In primary appraisal, the individual evaluates whether what is happening is worthy of attention and mobilisation – ie, ‘Is this situation potentially threatening?’ During secondary appraisal, an evaluation is made of coping options and outcomes – ie, ‘What can I do to minimise the harm in this situation? And do I have the resources to cope with it?’17

Coaching might help reduce stress because of its potential to influence the process of secondary appraisal.5, 16 Working with a coach can teach people how to identify their stressors, appraise them as less threatening and encourage them to deal with these more effectively.

For example, if a coachee predominantly uses emotion-focused strategies, they can learn how to adopt problem-based approaches instead. Structured feedback (perhaps using information gained from psychometric tests) can also help provide insight into the coachees’ preferred behavioural style, and how this could impact on others.

Because coaching takes place over time, coachees are more likely to find permanent solutions and so maintain the changes they make.

Goal orientation

Goal-setting theory stipulates that work goals should be specific, clear, attractive and stretching, but attainable.18 Mutually agreed goals have the effect of directing effort. If goals are specific, they create a precise intention that helps people target their behaviour commensurately.

Goal attainment has been identified as one of the essential elements for the effective transfer of training, as well as for longer-term skill maintenance, and behavioural change.

It’s probable that one of the reasons coaching works is because people commit to producing a result, and are therefore motivated to attain their set goals. This leads to feelings of happiness and satisfaction – the extent of which will be dependent on the importance of the goals in the first place. So if a coachee commits to achieving certain goals, and is successful in accomplishing them, it will lift their mood and provide a sense of enhanced wellbeing. Of course, failure to achieve goals leads to disappointment, which can also have the effect of increasing efforts to achieve closure (although not always).

In coaching, agreement to achieve stated goals is made at the start of the intervention, and progress towards achieving these goals is monitored through regular meetings with the coach, giving feedback on progress.

Coaching may also have a positive impact on the experience of stress because of the intensity of the learning experience itself. Social Learning Theory19 stipulates that individuals learn in two ways: either through direct advice, feedback and social persuasion, or vicariously, through positive role modelling. Therefore, coaches can play an important role in facilitating the learning process for employees through what they do, as well as what they say.

It also highlights the importance of self-efficacy in determining motivation to learn. The stronger a person’s self-belief, the more effort will be expended to achieve desired goals – increasing the potential for coaching success. Although this is most often seen when coaching high-performing employees, the same confidence-boosting potential exists when coaching those who are under-performing too.

Self-efficacy is also known to be closely linked with the amount of stress people experience in threatening or taxing situations in the first place,20 so it is an important construct to understand and develop.

What else is important?

Coaching has the potential to help people cope with work-related stress in several individual and combined ways that are contingent on the particular circumstances of the intervention. But other factors, such as individual characteristics – eg, levels of extraversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness – cannot be ignored. Nor can the environment in which the coaching takes place – after all, coaching does not take place in a vacuum.

Organisational culture has been shown to influence people’s experiences of stress and coping. A fascinating study found that coping strategies allied to stress experiences have collective qualities that are determined by the organisational and larger societal structure. In this respect, organisational culture can have the effect of moderating the appraisal of stress, but also in determining collective coping responses to stressors.21

Collective coping strategies therefore, consist of learned uniform responses that members within the culture manifest when trying either to remove the stressor, to change the interpretation of the situation or to alleviate the shared negative meanings it produces. The organisational climate influences (and, in some cases, limits) the ways in which individuals cope, show emotion and appraise situations.

This research offers a very different perspective on matters to the usual individually focused approach to stress dominating occupational health literature. It also underlines why line and human resources manager support for coaching interventions and the outputs from them are so critical in terms of coachee behavioural change.

Conclusion

Because coaching is generally viewed positively in organisations, it has the potential to have high acceptability ratings among employers and employees alike. But problems do exist. Firstly, coaching does have the potential to cause stress, so practitioners should be judicious when recommending its use. Secondly, coaching tends to be delivered by line managers. Realistically, the cost of providing externally provided solutions more extensively may be prohibitive.

Coaching by line managers is invaluable in terms of general performance management, but its efficacy for reducing work-related stress is questionable because of the complex power dynamics inherent in the manager/direct report relationship. Indeed, it may even be wholly inappropriate depending on the individual employee’s circumstances at the time.

Finally, this could represent a great opportunity for HR and training departments to fill the coaching gap, but organisations are unlikely to provide the investment required until there is more evidence to prove it works. So, perhaps for the foreseeable future, coaching is destined to continue being used as it is now, but remembering that the evidence suggests it may have wider applicability. For this reason, it should not be overlooked as an important tool and way of supplementing a general risk management approach for work-related stress.

Jo Berriman is an occupational health manager at Cigna Healthcare

References
  1. Gyllensten, K, Palmer, S (2006) Workplace stress: Can it be reduced by coaching? The Coaching Psychologist. 2 (1) p17-22
  2. Jones, J R, Huxtable, C S, Hodgson, J T, Price, M J (2003) Self-Reported Work-Related Illness in 2001/02: Results From A Household Survey. Norwich, HMSO
  3. Carsten, J (2006) The 7 hidden reasons employees leave: How to recognise the subtle signs and act before it is too late. Personnel Psychology, 59 (1) p246-249
  4. Selye, H (1956) The Stress of Life, New York, McGraw Hill
  5. Smith, C, Lazarus, R S (1990) Emotion and Adaptation in Pervin, L A, (Ed.). Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, Guilford Press, New York, and Cox, T (1993) Stress Research and Stress Management: Putting Theory to Work. Health and Safety Executive Contract Research Report No 61/1993. HSE Books, Sudbury, Suffolk, UK
  6. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (2001) Tackling work-related stress: A manager’s guide to improving and maintaining employee health and well-being. Suffolk, HSE.
  7. Palmer, S, Cooper, C, & Thomas, K, as described in Gyllensten, K, & Palmer, S, (2006) Experiences of coaching and stress in the workplace: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. International Coaching Psychology Review, 1 (1) p86-98
  8. Gyllensten, K, Palmer, S (2006) Experiences of coaching and stress in the workplace: An interpretative phenomenological analysis, International Coaching Psychology Review, 1 (1) p86-98, and Wales S (2002) Why coaching? Journal of Change Management, 3 (3) p275-282
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  10. Piaget, J (1971) Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge. New York, Viking Press
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  14. O’Donovan, A, & Hughes, B M (2006) Your best interests at heart? The Psychologist, 19 (4) p 216-219
  15. Sarason, I G, Sarason, B R, Pierce, G R (1990) as described in O’Donovan, A, & Hughes, B M (2006) Your best interests at heart? The Psychologist, 19 (4) p 216-219
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  18. Locke, E A, Latham, G P (1990) A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall
  19. Bandura, A (1977) Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall
  20. Wood, R, Bandura, A (1989) Social Cognitive Theory of Organization Management. Academy of Management Review, 14 (3) p361-383
  21. Lansisalmi, H, Peiro, J.M, Kivimaki, M. (2000) Collective stress and coping in the context of organizational culture. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 9 (4) p527-559

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