In our experience as Maternity Return Coaches, one of the most frequently asked questions we hear is ‘what’s the difference between coaching and therapy?’ so, we’re publishing this article to share our thoughts on the relationship between the two professions and why we think there’s a place for coaching to support our clients’ mental health and wellbeing, particularly at the point of returning to work after maternity leave.
It can be confusing because therapy and coaching seem to be similar – they’re both talking interventions and they both use psychological theory and evidence based tools and frameworks to support their clients. To simplify this, it’s probably sensible to start with a few definitions.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
The International Coach Federation (ICF) define coaching as “a partnership between Coach and Client in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize personal and professional potential ”
And the American Psychological Association (ACA) define Therapy as “the remediation of physical, mental, or behavioral disorders or disease”.
Bringing these definitions together, we can see that whether it’s the right time for coaching or therapy, will depend hugely on the mental health needs or diagnosis of the client. While it’s likely that coaching will have a positive impact on clients wellbeing and mental health there are times when the support of a therapist or a psychological treatment plan would be a better fit.
Coaching or Therapy?
If mental health were a continuum we might see crisis points at one end, and thriving at the other, with a grey area in the middle we can refer to as struggling. When clients are at crisis point this would be a time when therapy would be the most appropriate approach. It’s more likely that coaches will work with clients who are already thriving, but there is also room for coaching when clients are in the ‘struggling’ phase. Coaching at this time can prove to be a preventative measure where coachees can build a tool kit of skills meaning they don’t reach crisis.
The training, education and accreditation of psychotherapists is hugely different from coaches. Psychotherapists are trained to diagnose and provide treatment to people facing mental illnesses, usually as a crisis management intervention with a view to helping patients return to a baseline of good mental health.
Therapy can be a long term intervention used when symptoms of mental health are having a significant impact on the ability to function in various areas of life. It is a supportive process of healing from trauma or grief which can have a tendency to focus more on the past.
While it’s out of scope for a coach to diagnose a mental illness or disorder such as depression or anxiety, we may look at the impact of the symptoms on the goals our clients bring to coaching and what is in their control to improve their overall well-being, focusing on the here and now. Coaching would not focus on a clinical issue but can be used to support clients in an active, solutions focussed partnership.
To bring this to life these are some examples of outcomes clients have reached through maternity return coaching programmes:
Feeling more resilient
Having a tool kit to deal with feelings of overwhelm
Developed stress management skills
Enjoying life more
Increased confidence including self esteem and self worth
Coaching can help clients to become more aware of their emotions, thoughts and behaviours which in turn helps them to build new habits impacting positively on their mental health and well-being.
Coaching is a holistic intervention where the presenting issue is often not a true reflection of the work that takes place between the coach and coachee. In 2009 a study of 140 coaches carried out by the Harvard Business Review, reported that in executive coaching only 3% of coaches were hired to address personal issues, but in 76% of cases, personal topics came up.
Digital Coaching platform, BetterUp carried out their own study in 2021 (Time to Change for Mental Health and Well-being via Virtual Professional Coaching), which found that coaching had a positive effect on the coachees mental health and wellbeing. They showed that coachees life satisfaction improved throughout the coaching period and improvements were noted in their self awareness, self efficacy, social connection and emotional regulation. They also found that resilience and finding meaning and purpose at work grew throughout the coaching engagement.
Links to Maternity Return Coaching
In 2016, a report from the independent mental health task force for NHS England, (5 Year Forward View for Mental Health) thought that 1 in 5 mothers suffered with depression or anxiety, in 2021 a study led by UCL researchers showed that 47.5% of women with babies 6 months or younger met the criteria for postnatal depression during the first Covid-19 lockdown.
Add into this that 11% women experience an impact on their mental health as a direct result of their return to work and motherhood (2022 Careers After Babies Report, carried out by That Works For Me) and it starts to become clear that it’s difficult to separate out mental health from coaching topics, particularly when working with women returning to work after having children. This could also be a crucial point where offering coaching to returning employees can prevent their mental health from diminishing further.
One to one coaching should take a highly personalised and tailored approach and how mental health is treated should be part of the initial chemistry and contracting process. As a client looking for a coach, it’s advisable to ask the coach to explain their understanding of the difference between therapy and coaching and together you can decide what you both feel should be in or out of scope of any coaching programme.
If you would like more information about the maternity return coaching packages we offer, please feel free to contact us.
My colleague Sarah Turner l and I have been busy creating content highlighting the importance of organisations providing support for working parents. As part of this, we created this video series exploring the entire journey of maternity leave, from before the leave starts, through to preparing to return and then the first few months back at work. In our most recent video we talk about maternity coaching and mental health.
This blog post is a collaboration between Maternity Coaches Laura Duggal and Sarah Turner. They are working together, sharing their experiences and bringing the best of their joint advice and knowledge to you.