Workplace Wellbeing

Therapy or Coaching? How to Determine What’s Best for Your Employees

Both therapists and coaches provide a safe space for their clients to process and explore their feelings, create goals and action plans, and keep them accountable. The difference is how each professional works in that space.

Written by
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Sean Robinson, PhD, PCC, TICC
Program Director & Professor
Clinically reviewed by
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Woman in a white button down working with a coach virtually

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    When someone is struggling with their mental health, it can be difficult to reach out for help, and even harder to know exactly what kind of support they need. 

    It’s important for HR and People leaders to understand the differences between therapy and coaching, so they’re equipped to help employees understand when, why, and how each profession can support them.

    Both therapists and coaches provide a safe space for their clients to process and explore their feelings, create goals and action plans, and keep them accountable.

    The difference is how each professional works in that space.

    What is therapy?

    At its broadest definition, therapy is about dealing with clinical mental illness. It’s often recommended for people who are experiencing some form of emotional pain, or are in distress and looking for relief or healing. 

    Generally, individuals seek therapy when their daily functioning is interrupted by challenges or circumstances they can’t seem to resolve, or to work through psychological or emotional pain they’re experiencing—due to either recent events or the surfacing of prior traumatic experiences that are currently impacting the individual.  

    People go to therapy for a variety of other reasons, including to:

    • Heal from trauma
    • Process and work through interpersonal conflict
    • Dealing with addiction disorders
    • Seek support while navigating a difficult experience, like a loved one’s death

    Benefits of therapy

    Therapists help their clients do the deep work required to resolve issues from the past that are getting in the way of daily activities. 

    Therapists help individuals understand their thoughts and emotions, better manage heavier emotions like anger, find relief from depression, anxiety, and grief, and become emotionally stronger and more resilient. The life-long coping skills that clients learn in therapy generally last far beyond the course of treatment.

    Working with a therapist can also help increase healthy functioning, such as:

    • Improving communication, decision-making, and interpersonal skills
    • Boosting confidence, problem-solving, and conflict resolution abilities
    • Increasing satisfaction in both work and life, and achieving a greater sense of purpose

    People can benefit from therapy along a spectrum: 

    • As an intervention for illness—particularly for symptoms that are interfering with their daily functioning
    • For maintenance—putting new skills into practice
    • For prevention—to ensure they’re managing well during a disruption or stressful time in their life, or to simply have a 'tune up'

    What is coaching?

    Coaches use tools and strategies to help their clients break through what’s holding them back from becoming the best version of themselves. Therapists help clients feel better, and coaches help clients do better. 

    Coaches help their clients set and achieve personal goals, build new skills and healthier habits, and achieve balance, which bolsters their mental health and overall wellness. In addition, they can provide support for personal development, building stronger parenting skills, developing healthier relationships, and overall wellbeing.

    Benefits of coaching

    People seek coaching when they want to do and be better, not just feel better.

    Coaching is about thriving and flourishing. A coach’s job is to help clients move from doing good work to great work, and from surviving to thriving.  

    Both coaches and therapists focus on mental health and wellness, but coaches aren’t trained to do the deep psychological work that therapists do. Coaches generally focus on broad two areas:

    • Mental fitness: strengthening skills we already possess, or developing new skills
    • Resilience: tapping into personal resources we have but are unable to recognize or acknowledge

    The difference between therapy and coaching

    Despite the distinct differences between therapy and coaching, as coaching continues to evolve, so do the similarities. A fair number of therapists have also become certified coaches as the demand and professionalization of the coaching arena grows. 

    Understanding the distinctions between therapy and coaching is crucial for HR and People leaders seeking to support employees' mental well-being effectively. While both professions offer a secure environment for clients to process emotions, set goals, and take action, they differ in their primary focus. Therapists specialize in addressing mental illness and significant emotional and relational concerns, providing treatment and support. On the other hand, coaches concentrate on elevating performance in specific areas, guiding individuals towards personal and professional growth.

    How coaching is evolving

    In addition to the ICF, the Institute of Coaching at McLean, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate, is also a global organization dedicated to ensuring scientific integrity in the coaching field. They’re doing this by encouraging the development and dissemination of applied research, theories, and models that support and inform coaching practices. 

    One of their new programs offers mental health literacy training for coaches. The program teaches coaches to recognize the signs of depression, anxiety, trauma, bipolar disorder, and addiction/substance abuse so they can build a deeper understanding of how it can show up, and more importantly, how to help their clients work through it. 

    In addition, Moving the Human Spirit is the earliest and most well-known ICF accredited training program that offers trauma-informed coach training, preparing coaches from the start to work with trauma survivors, building resilience and working toward solution focused, positive outcomes. 

    The old way of thinking about coaches is that one would only seek their help if they were in a good place mentally, and goals were behavior oriented. As the field of professional coaching evolves and deepens, however, the overlap between therapy and coaching is becoming greater.

    Evidence-based coaching

    While most coaches don’t have the extensive clinical training that therapists have, they are beginning to employ evidence-based practices with their clients, developed through empirical research, much the same way that therapists are expected to. 

    There is a lot of work being done around recognizing and addressing a low-level set of clinical issues, and knowing when to refer clients to a therapist when they fall outside of that.

    Therapy and coaching can work together

    Throughout our lives, our needs are continually shifting. Therapy and coaching complement each other, and can both be a part of someone’s mental health and wellness journey.  

    For example, if an employee is working with a coach to improve their time management and organizational skills, and then loses a loved one, the coach may suggest therapy in addition to coaching—especially if the client is experiencing deep depression or grief. 

    How therapy and coaching can benefit employees and your bottom line

    Generally speaking, organizations tend to worry about the bottom line first, customers second, and put employees at the bottom of the list of concerns. But when organizations take care of their employees first, those employees will take better care of customers, and that care is reflected in the bottom line

    When employees have access to both coaching and therapy in a single platform experience, they’re more engaged, mentally healthy, and productive. In fact, a recent study shows that offering a mental health benefit increases productivity by 24%, while also reducing employee turnover by 60%.  

    Therapy and coaching gives employees a safe space to talk about and process how they’re feeling, and explore alternative ways of feeling, thinking, and being. They both provide the accountability that many need to set and achieve their goals, better interact with their co-workers and managers, have a healthier work-life balance, and ultimately, create a healthier workplace environment. 

    Working with a therapist and/or coach is an opportunity for employees to reflect on and answer these two questions:

    • What does the best version of myself look like? 
    • How can I best move from where I am now to where I want to be? 

    Connecting employees to a therapist or coach

    Every employee can benefit from additional support and guidance around their mental health and wellness. 

    Offering a comprehensive mental health benefit that includes both therapy and coaching is the most effective way to provide this support, and show your employees that you care about their wellbeing. 

    After all, the secret to the bottom line isn’t just about profits. It’s about employees who are engaged, healthy, and find purpose in their work. Putting employees first won’t guarantee higher earnings, but it will make the trek there a lot easier.

    Investing in mental health pays off—but the process of evaluating all the options out there
    can be overwhelming.

    In this guide, we’re breaking down how to find a solution that is worth it and proven to work for your organization.

    About the Author
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    Sean Robinson, PhD, PCC, TICC
    Program Director & Professor

    Sean is an award winning and seasoned educator, therapist, trainer, and professional coach based in Washington, DC. After 15 years as a licensed therapist, Sean made the transition to coaching, working with individuals to transform their lives by helping them understand their purpose, develop their vision, and harness their strengths to create the life they truly want. Sean is a frequent diversity speaker and trainer, and has published over two dozen articles on LGBTQ+ identities and creating inclusive spaces and organizations. In addition to his coaching practice, Sean is a professor of leadership studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where his main emphasis is on teaching educational leadership and administration.

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