For several years now coaches have been talking about how to support leaders, teams and organisations in a ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous’ (VUCA) world and this is most certainly where we are now in this crisis. Coaching goes beyond executive, business or organisational support, but in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and supporting the BACP campaign, this is a good starting place as it is something that can be clearly differentiated from pure counselling.

For organisations and leaders coping with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis, coaching offers a structured and tailored framework enabling them to set goals, develop new ways of working and support growth.

Challenges for leaders in the immediate and long term

We are living with great uncertainty – so much more than usual is unknown. We know from research that living with uncertainty may be more challenging than coping with a known catastrophe. It is difficult to plan and be strategic. The pace of change is also very fast. This can be overwhelming. Many circumstances now facing organisation leaders are unprecedented, without reference points or previous experience to draw upon.

Leaders and managers face pressure to continue performing their roles, perhaps not knowing how their usual leadership skills and styles fit with the new circumstances. How do they stay in touch with, motivate and support their workforce? How do they decide which staff to furlough, when and how to do it and when and how to bring them back and how does being furloughed impact on individuals and the team dynamics?

Human resources departments may be coordinating furloughs while operating on reduced staffing within their own team and may find that other HR issues can’t be addressed. For organisations that have increased working from home there may be a wide range of concerns, including pressures on staff with young children, structuring the working day and week and establishing new collaborative links between departments. On an individual level, some staff may feel their workload has increased while others may be feeling under-utilised or disconnected.

In the private sector, many small and medium enterprises will be battling to keep afloat and even avoid closure.

Public and third sector

Organisations in different sectors are coming to terms with restructuring their businesses, supporting staff and responding to changing situations during the COVID-19 pandemic. While each face unique challenges, there are common themes emerging within sectors.

For the education sector, there may be lack of expertise in delivering education remotely in schools, colleges and universities. There will be need to evaluate and learn from the initial rapid response which saw a drive to e-learning, which may also be causing concerns for the future among teaching staff. Head teachers and senior leadership teams will be managing the continuing attendance at school of children of keyworkers and the diverse parental response to the easing of the lockdown restrictions and next steps for pupils.

The NHS is facing huge pressures to cope with the day to day treatment of COVID-19 patients, while still delivering other clinical activities. There is ongoing uncertainty about the disease trajectory and how changes to government guidelines will impact on disease transmission, making planning difficult. In some parts of the NHS and in social care there will be longer term considerations about the impact on mental health and the risks to staff of PTSD.

Leaders in the voluntary sector are facing the cancellation of fund-raising events which constitute significant proportions of annual income for many. The ability to deliver existing projects to the funded specifications may have been severely impaired, and bids for funding to deliver community activity which bring in the resource required to continue to employ staff, have also been interrupted. Added to these concerns is the anxiety about the welfare and wellbeing of vulnerable clients whose services and support has been interrupted.

Mental and emotional wellbeing

Mental health issues are likely to manifest as people are stressed, isolated and at times traumatised. Many people may be in their “threat” or “survivor” responses which are less conducive to positive engagement and good thinking. Stress is quite contagious. How do leaders enable teams to rebalance and recharge?

Leaders wrestling with big decisions and organisational issues are themselves vulnerable to negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing both from the stresses of work and wider personal concerns over life during the pandemic.

How coaching can help leaders meet these challenges

In times of crisis, coaching offers support to organisations, to leaders and to individuals. In the current COVID-19 crisis the landscape has changed for many organisations and their staff. Some organisations may need radical rebuilding and changes of function. Coaching is a crucible within which reflection, learning, innovation, adaption and planning can take place and new opportunities forged.

Many coaches use a contracting model focusing on three areas:

  • business results
  • leader interpersonal behaviours
  • team interactions1

From this foundation each of the following can be shaped to meet the need of the organisation and its staff:

Space and time to think and process

Coaching provides much needed time to think, to process own thoughts and feelings and make short term and strategic decisions. This enables leaders to listen more effectively to the information coming from them, their teams and the wider world.

Leaders have a confidential space with a coach who will both support them to do their own best thinking and who can provide information from their own experience and knowledge about managing change and stress and supporting and engaging teams. Thoughts and feelings can be normalised and accepted and processed. Imaginative and strategic thinking can be encouraged. The unthinkable can be faced.

Dual trained practitioners can support as well as enable leaders to think about strategic ways forward. They can work at an emotional depth that is the most relevant to the coachee’s internal landscape.

During the COVID-19 crisis and working with its aftermath, coaching has great value in acknowledging and enabling individuals to acknowledge and manage their own trauma reactions and triggers – coaches seek to connect with and further develop the healthy self which is then better placed to mediate survivor behaviours and mobilise appropriate support in the self for trauma.

Opportunities to learn, plan and respond strategically

Working well with short-term issues can enable better longer-term strategies, so there is an opportunity during this crisis to strengthen abilities to rebalance and increase resilience.

There are learning opportunities in crises, for example strategies for working remotely in teams can lead to better habits in team meetings if done well.

External coaches work across many different organisations and with different leaders so there is opportunity for cross fertilisation in terms of ideas and strategies. Organisations can benefit from this and for individuals there may be opportunity to experience a slower pace of work and to step off the treadmill and plan a different less stressful and demanding future.

Strengthening emotional and mental health

For any leaders that may previously have doubted the value of compassionate leadership there is now an urgency to pay attention to relationships by listening and valuing the other(s). Given the mental health extent of the current crisis, more leaders will need to urgently adopt a more compassionate style, listening to and valuing their colleagues. This will focus on protecting people’s mental health and enable the best recovery for them and the organisation.

The use of the therapeutic approach promotes multi-layering which holds, supports and nourishes clients, and by attending to and owning our vulnerability we add to our resilience.2 There’s also an important opportunity to enable self-care and to promote wellbeing as an outcome, not simply as a means to an end - this might include reconsidering work life balance.

Supporting engagement within an organisation

Coaching can be deployed to enable leaders to stay connected in relationship to their people who in turn stay connected to their organisation while working remotely. This can be particularly effective for people working across silos who benefit from being more “agile”.3

Supporting leaders with engagement of the team contributes to a more effective support for the vision of the organisation; each person recognises their contribution and accountability – work is more satisfying.

Exploration of purpose and meaning

At a time of uncertainty it is common for existential questions of where we are in life to arise; is this how we want to continue? Clients may be starting to ask themselves bigger questions, for example what do I want from life? Does this job still work for me? What’s it like to have an enforced break from the long hours at the office and direct pressure of office life? Do I feel things are changing; am I changing? How do I want to live my life when this pandemic is over or has abated? What have I learned about myself in the process?

A coaching approach offers a chance to think about both what they can and what they can’t do and to focus on what they can.4

At this time of great need and uncertainty there is a pressing need for support for organisations, leaders and individuals. Coaching can be highly effective for leaders, organisations and individuals during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

We support BACP’s ongoing campaign to maximise the role of counselling in helping to tackle the mental health challenges of COVID-19. Coaching is a critical intervention to helping the nation to heal and individuals, families and companies navigate a path through the challenges ahead. We urge coaching organisations and partners to join the campaign too and help send a clear message to Government that more investment is needed to enable us to support the nation through these challenging times.

Thanks to Karen Ledger, Michele Down, Tom Andrews, Gill Fennings Monkman and Steve Page, all members of the Coaching Executive, and Jeremy Bacon, special interest lead for the Coaching division, for the ideas and insights they contributed to this article.


1. Three Key Factors as identified by Mary Beth O’Neill (Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, p131)
2. Brene Brown research
3. The Five Trademarks of Agile Organisations. McKinsey Consultants. December 2017
4. Stephen Covey, Circles of Influence, Circles of Concern. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.