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Coaching during crisis: New BetterUp research shows coaching helps employees navigate change and uncertainty

August 24, 2022 - 14 min read
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    We can all agree that the macro-environment today is challenging — for organizations and individuals. 

    Yet, it isn’t unfamiliar. We experienced many of the same trends — ambiguity, supply chain and worker mismatches — at the beginning of the pandemic. But, neither workers nor leaders are the same as they were then. Years of unpredictable and continuous change have taken a toll. Well-being is low. People are tired, stretched and off-balance, and organizations are once again asking their employees to do more with less. 

    What does this mean? It means that your workforce and your team are likely feeling less eager to implement a new productivity tool or motivated to dig into a delivery problem, less up to sorting out how to comply with a new reporting policy, less resourceful to work around a resource gap. Less able to navigate bigger changes to the organization or business.

    More than ever companies need to respond to the varied needs and concerns of the workforce in uncertain times, in particular, those that stand in the way of well-being, productivity, effective contribution, and professional growth. But how?

    New research from BetterUp Labs demonstrates the effectiveness of coaching as a tool for supporting employee performance and well-being through crisis, change, or uncertainty. Published in August 2022 in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, the large scale study (1055 participants) was made possible by the continuous collection of product data and the serendipitous timing of a stream of unrelated research. 

    The research demonstrates that coaching can help employees not only navigate change but thrive through it — to the benefit of the individual and their organizations and teams.

    Research shows virtual 1:1 coaching helps employees build more resilience, authenticity, and overall well-being to thrive against uncertainty

    Led by Elena Auer, Ph.D. Candidate, with Derek Hutchinson, Ph.D., Erin Eatough, Ph.D., Evan Carr, Ph.D., Evan Sinar, Ph.D., and Gabriella Kellerman, MD, from BetterUp Labs, the team compared outcomes of people who received unlimited 1:1 virtual coaching during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a group of people who did not receive coaching. 

    The primary outcomes in this study were: 

    • Well-being
      • Life satisfaction (feelings of fulfillment in life)
      • Resilience (recovery, coping, and growth after stress)
      • Optimism (a positive outlook on the future)
    • Work outcomes:
      • Engagement (feeling engrossed in work)
      • Productivity (producing high quantity and quality of work)
    • Relationship outcomes: 
      • Authenticity (feeling able to open up to others)
      • Social Connection (regular interactions with supportive others)

    The outcomes reflect the impact of stress related to uncertainty and change. Uncertainty — including macro-economic, healthy and safety, and organizational reprioritizing or restructuring — is stressful. People face new roles, new ways of living and working, in some cases significant changes to life and career plans. 

    The impact of such stress cannot be confined to home or work. It affects an employee’s capacity and well-being across their personal and professional lives. These unavoidable stressors can create a sense of threat and fear that can lead to reduced engagement or productivity at work, a reduction in positive feelings about the future or life in general, and even a pulling away from supportive relationships. Alternatively, they can cause re-evaluation and reconnection with values, sense of purpose, and support networks that lead to personal growth.  

    This BetterUp Labs research used proprietary measures of each of these dimensions that were developed in-house using a scale development process that followed the highest scientific standards in psychological and behavioral assessment to establish validity and reliability.

    Here’s what we found

    The study found that coaching was effective at helping people withstand the negative impact of change and uncertainty and continue to grow during a challenging period. Coaching helped to buffer against the fear, distraction, and helplessness that can damage individual well-being and show up in our ability to work and build relationships effectively.

    Specifically, people who received coaching: 

    • Experienced positive gains in key markers of well-being, including optimism and life satisfaction, as well as gains related to productivity and authenticity. People who did not receive coaching experienced a decline in those same areas, resulting in significant absolute differences. For example, people receiving coaching scored 22% higher in Productivity than those without coaching and experienced 4X growth in Resilience. 
    • Grew more in resilience and social connection compared to those who did not receive coaching. 

    Study Findings Well-being


    Study Findings work1

    Study finding relationships1

    The strength of the results came as a surprise. The team had expected that all participants would experience some decline given the extreme circumstances of the time period when participants were measured. Instead, those with coaching actually saw growth. They achieved higher thriving than their baseline level, even in the face of the unprecedented change and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. 

    How does coaching work to support thriving through uncertainty?

    The research team proposed two primary mechanisms to explain the benefits of coaching during times of change and uncertainty:

    1. Prevention. Coaching helps people build psychological resources that prepare them for future challenges, such as taking on a new manager role, managing a change initiative for a team or across the company, or coping with personal crisis. 
    2. Just-in-time support. Coaching provides ongoing support, for well-being as well as practicing skills specific to a challenge, during the change and uncertainty. 

    Prevention. Coaching may improve a coachee’s ability to prepare for future challenges through goal setting, adaptation planning, and building resources such as resilience. The demands of change, even when it is positive such as promotion into a new role, can deplete our psychological resources (Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Model). By building resilience and other psychological capital, coaching is a preemptive boost to our resources that can be protective against some of the detrimental effects of change and uncertainty. BetterUp research has previously shown that coaching can result in meaningful improvement in protective psychological resources to support resilience.

    Support. Coaching might be beneficial by providing consistent, ongoing support to people during or after the onset of crisis or change. A few recent studies have provided evidence supporting the beneficial effects of coaching during difficult times such as financial recession, organizational change, and business failure for entrepreneurs. Coaches often encourage coping skills such as reframing and self-compassion to help coachees, which can lead to increased resilience to difficult situations and even subsequent growth. A 1:1 coaching session is also a powerful point of social connection.

    Why this matters now: Employee well-being is low and we’re in for more turbulence 

    With many predicting continued and even more dynamic change ahead, organizations need new tools and approaches to ensure the readiness of their workforces. Leaders and employees alike are aware of the problem, the downward spiral of well-being and mental health, motivation and productivity brought on by uncertainty, fear, distraction, burnout, and lack of purpose and meaning. What they lack are evidence-based tools and interventions to help employees navigate turbulence and thrive. 

    In the current talent market, even though there may be layoffs, restructuring, hiring freezes, and other changes, the most in-demand talent will continue to have choices. Doubling down on critical and top talent by supporting them with evidence-based interventions to help them thrive through changing business priorities and org restructuring can help retain them. 

    As company growth slows and budgets are reduced, organizations will be asking their people to do more with less and under evolving contexts. It is critical to help them invest their time wisely, support sustainable productivity levels, and build resilience to navigate the changes they are experiencing. 

    Innovation, transformation, and organizational resilience are becoming more important than ever. Organizational success through change and uncertainty starts with transformation of, and investment in, individuals. Building resilience and fostering innovation for individuals will help the organization move faster and evolve. 

    man-and-woman-coworkers-collaboratecoaching-during-crisis 2

    Dive deeper: About the research study

    In one of the largest studies of its kind, the research team compared pre- and post-measures for 1,005 participants to understand how participants changed or grew between a time period before the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately after the onset of the pandemic — when change and uncertainty were peaking.

    BetterUp Labs followed two groups’ experiences navigating the onset of the pandemic. The first group included 545 Members with access to unlimited BetterUp coaching who had onboarded a few months prior to the pandemic and had received an average of 10 weeks of coaching. Coaching was provided by certified, best-in-class BetterUp coaches who were either ICF (or equivalent) certified or held a clinical license with over 1,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. 

    The second group included 460 participants from a crowdsourcing research platform who had participated in a survey research study a month prior to the pandemic and did not have access to coaching in the past 12 months. 

    Both groups had completed a survey pre-pandemic that included measures of well-being (life satisfaction, resilience, and optimism), relationships (authenticity and social connection), and work outcomes (engagement and productivity) and were surveyed again one-to-two months after the onset of the pandemic. 

    This study used a pre-post quasi-experimental design to evaluate changes in well-being, relationships, and work outcomes during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of great uncertainty and change. The research team sought to test the following hypotheses:

    1. The research team predicted that both the coaching and the non-coaching groups would experience an average decline in (a) well-being, (b) relationship outcomes, and (c) work outcomes during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    2. The research team predicted that participants who received coaching would experience less of a decline in (a) well-being, (b) relationship outcomes, and (c) work outcomes during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    To test these hypotheses, BetterUp Labs examined pre and post-data for 1005 participants, split into two groups, one coached and one not coached. The coached group included 545 BetterUp members who completed a follow-up measure on or after March 11th, 2020 (the day the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic) through May 1st, 2020. The uncoached group included 460 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk who were recruited in February 2020, before the pandemic to participate in a separate survey study and were sent a follow-up survey in April 2020. Only participants who did not report any amount of coaching in the past 12 months were included in the non-coached sample. 

    Participants in the coached group were Members that were given a personal BetterUp coach through their employer. Coaches were drawn from a pool of  ICF certified or licensed expert coaches across 60 countries. Coaches reflected a wide breadth of expertise with training from the fields of clinical psychology, positive psychology coaching, organizational development, leadership, mindfulness, and motivational interviewing. 

    The primary outcomes in this study were: 

    • Well-being: Life satisfaction (feelings of fulfillment in life); Resilience (recovery, coping, and growth after stress; Optimism (a positive outlook of the future)
    • Relationship outcomes: Authenticity (feeling able to open up to others); Social Connection (regular interactions with supportive others)
    • Work outcomes: Engagement (feeling engrossed in work); Productivity (producing high quantity and quality of work)

    This BetterUp Labs research used proprietary measures of each of these dimensions that were developed in-house using a scale development process that followed the highest scientific standards in psychological and behavioral assessment to establish validity and reliability. 

    Participants were tracked at 2 time points:

    • Time 1: Pre- March 11th, 2020 (approximately Jan or Feb 2020)
    • Time 2: Post- March 11th, 2020 (April or May 2020)

    Patterns of growth over time were examined across all of the outcomes using a series of models that account for repeated measurement of individuals over time (for the statisticians, a series of linear mixed effect models). 

    While the research team had hypothesized that work and well-being outcomes would decrease after the onset of the pandemic, there was only partial support for this hypothesis.  Across groups, productivity declined as expected, but interestingly authenticity remained the same, and engagement, life satisfaction, optimism, resilience, and social connectedness surprisingly increased after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

    However, in support of the second hypothesis, the improvements were primarily driven by the group that received coaching. Specifically, the coached experienced positive gains in optimism, life satisfaction, authenticity, and productivity while the uncoached experienced a decline in those outcomes. The coached experienced larger growth in resilience and social connection compared to the uncoached. Changes in engagement did not appear to differ by group, indicating that there were similar degrees of positive change for those who received and did not receive coaching. 

    This study was made possible by the continuous collection of product data and the serendipitous timing of a stream of unrelated research. The research team was able to leverage these data to examine important questions about extant, virtual coaching as a useful tool for supporting employees through crises and challenges using a large sample size and wide breadth of outcomes in comparison to most coaching studies.

    Note that as with any study, there are limitations. The groups of participants studied were non-equivalent with no random assignment, which makes it impossible to draw any causal conclusions. Additionally, the design of the present study did not allow for the examination of why participants experienced the changes that they did. 

    Ultimately, however, the results indicate that external, virtual coaching can be an effective solution in supporting employees through times of crisis and change.

    The research was published on August 1, 2022, in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, a leading Open Access, international peer-reviewed journal, managed by ICCAMS (International Centre for Coaching & Mentoring Studies) at Oxford Brookes University Business School.

    Lead with confidence and authenticity

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    Lead with confidence and authenticity

    Develop your leadership and strategic management skills with the help of an expert Coach.

    Published August 24, 2022

    Elena Auer

    Elena Auer is a Quantitative Behavioral Scientist at BetterUp. She is currently finishing up her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

    At BetterUp, Elena leverages assessment data and expertise in behavioral research to help optimize and track BetterUp’s impact on members and partners. She also designs innovative and interactive developmental assessments to fuel member engagement, yield greater self-insight, and rigorously track the effectiveness of BetterUp’s solutions and resources.

    Before BetterUp, Elena was in graduate school researching innovative approaches to psychological assessment using machine learning, games, and text analysis. She lives in Norfolk, VA with her husband and two cats.

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