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Language analysis reveals how coaching has evolved over the last 3 years

January 12, 2022 - 9 min read

coaching trends over the last three years

As employees and employers alike grappled with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past three years, the value of professional coaching has come to the fore. 

The evidence is overwhelming: professional coaching has been proven to mitigate the effects of languishing by 38%, reduce burnout by 52%, build resilience, and improve individual and team performance. It’s no wonder then that more and more companies are adopting professional coaching programs.

But as the pandemic wears on, new challenges continue to emerge for both organizations and individuals. And they range far beyond health and safety. As we look to what 2022 has in store, we were curious about how these changing needs show up in specific coaching topics and which rising trends are shaping coaching sessions among our members.

To help answer our questions, we used natural language processing to surface coaching themes from hundreds of thousands of (anonymized) comments from thousands of our members. We analyzed two types of comments:

  1. Comments collected during onboarding in which members wrote about the areas in which they wanted to improve.

  2. Comments at reflection points during the coaching process, which likely corresponds to areas in which our members and coaches actually engaged and made progress.

From these themes, we observed how interest and engagement in different themes of development have changed over the past three years.

What the data say

The topics that people are interested in as they start their coaching journey have changed dramatically over the last three years.

reasons people start a coaching journey from the years 2019, 2020, 2021

Onboarding - initial interest - growing theme

In 2019, before the pandemic took the world by storm, we saw high levels of interest in topics focused on leading or influencing others: being an inspiration, career advancement, influence, empowering others, and managing up.


word map of key phrases and terms people were interested in 2019

But in 2020 as the pandemic began to spread and more people switched to remote work, members’ focus appears to have shifted inward. From 2020 on, we see a sharp rise in interest for coaching topics that focus on the individual. Themes related to mental health saw big boosts. Interest in work-life balance saw a 70% increase, purpose and passion a 30% increase, and emotional intelligence an incredible 75% increase.

This was also reflected in our member’s comments. Mentions of "mental health" went up 2.5X in 2020 and 12X by 2021. “Emotional resilience” was a term we rarely observed in 2019 but has grown to be as common as the phrases "team management', "people leader", and "interpersonal relationships." Other intriguing phrases we’ve seen grow in popularity are “purpose in life” (5X growth), “healthy balance” (5X growth), and “life coach” (10X growth).

It’s clear there has been a marked shift from thinking about coaching narrowly as a way to get better at being a manager, executive, or worker to thinking about coaching more broadly as a way to lead a more fulfilling, happier, and healthier life.

By 2021, the market shifted and coaching was thought as necessary to lead a healthier life

The shift inward

The sharpest drop we saw was for the topic of “being an inspiration.” During times of stress, it’s natural for us to focus on ourselves and our immediate needs. The opinions of others become less important. We saw this reflected in other data as well. Throughout 2019 and 2020, we observed that managers and others in leadership positions sought more coaching for matters of personal well-being than those of leadership skills.

The greatest increase we saw was for the topic of “work-life balance.” As dens and bedrooms became makeshift offices became permanent workspaces and parents continue to juggle Zoom calls with day-care duty, it’s become nearly impossible to draw the line between where work ends and home life begins.

Another sharp increase we observed was for the topic “purpose and passion” that occurred between 2020 and 2021. This suggests that as people grew more accustomed to this new normal, they moved on from the immediate stress and panic of the here-and-now and began to think more about their overall trajectory and future prospects again. Encounters with mortality and the limitations of modern life brought shifting priorities, new thinking, and reassessment for many. We see this reflected at a larger scale in things like the Great Resignation and the exodus from star cities to rural communities and up-and-coming urban hotspots.

With a greater understanding and acceptance of how our lives are impacted by the virus, our cognitive faculties are freeing up to once again focus on what’s ahead. Interest in career planning grew by 14% and career transition by 56%.

Shoring up foundations

As the topics our new members expressed interest in changed, the actual topics covered in their coaching sessions reflected those changes.

topics discussed during coaching in 2019, 2020, and 2021

topics discussed in coaching in 2019, 2020, 2021

Work-life balance, emotional intelligence, physical health, and career-related themes all trended upward from 2019-2021. “Business as usual” topics like being an inspiration, empowering others, networking, conflict management, setting goals/priorities, strategic planning, and feedback all trended downward. 

But we did observe one interesting discrepancy. While initial interest in career advancement saw a decline, the career advancement theme during actual coaching increased significantly. This suggests that the coaching process may have guided members to important areas for professional development or helped them achieve certain goals they were not initially aware of.

What this means for organizations

It pains me to say, but the pandemic is not over. While vaccines and mask mandates have helped most businesses resume, life is still far from normal. New variants and outbreaks perpetuate the stress and uncertainty many feel about the future. As we continue to progress through this pandemic, our needs, desires, and interests will continue to evolve.

Fortunately though, professional coaching has been proven to help people build mental fitness so they can not only cope with but thrive in ambiguity. Best of all, it’s a flexible and endlessly adaptable solution. As new challenges manifest, coaches adjust to provide the right support at the right time to each individual.

For organizations to succeed in today’s choppy waters, they need to find an adaptable solution to support the mental and emotional health of their employees and meet their professional and personal development needs so they can perform at their best, now and in the future. Whatever challenges tomorrow brings. Professional coaching may just be the answer they’re looking for. 

Lead with confidence and authenticity

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

Lead with confidence and authenticity

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

Published January 12, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Dr. Erin Eatough is an occupational health psychologist who has published research on employee well-being in over 30 outlets such as the Journal of Applied Psychology and has been featured in media outlets such as Harvard Business Review. Erin currently serves BetterUp in translating data to insight and helps to bring the science of BetterUp to life through content marketing. Erin received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.

Before BetterUp, Erin was a professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband and two young children. When not working, you can find her and her family on adventures in their tiny home on wheels, a converted Sprinter van.

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