Lessons from coaching for wellbeing in front line work

Written by Laura Love-Petschl, Community & Grassroots Leadership Coach, Founder of Between Humans

August 4, 2023
5 min read
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Introduction: From surviving to thriving

Five years ago I burnt out, and it was coaching that helped me to lift myself out of the ashes.

I had been working in the charity sector for a few years, following a career change in my early 30s, and on the surface it seemed like everything was going exactly as I could have hoped. I was doing work that I believed in, for a purpose I believed in, and most days I felt enormously lucky to be having a positive impact, no matter how small, in the world.

Beneath the surface, however, trouble was brewing.

Stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, overwork, overwhelm. These things crept up slowly, and I continued to push through, until suddenly one day I couldn’t. It was like running into a wall, to the extent that a panic attack is anything like a wall.

It was at this point that I found coaching, and coaching became my journey from surviving at work to thriving at it. Because having coaching inspired me, in 2020, to train as a coach and helped me to find my mission: to make coaching more accessible for everyone working in community, grassroots and other front line work so that we can all thrive.

To this end I founded Between Humans, a coaching social enterprise, and I now work with leaders with lived experience who are building organisations, purposeful businesses, and grassroots movements to address some of society’s most pressing social problems. Through coaching, I support their professional and personal growth as leaders, helping them to build their capacity to create positive, sustainable social change in their communities whilst taking care of their own wellbeing as human beings. I also work on a number of community projects, coaching refugees and asylum seekers. Despite the fact that much of my current work is more challenging than before I burnt out five years ago, I find myself able to meet the challenges without the same detriment to my wellbeing. I have found a way of working which means that work not only feels sustainable, but creative, energising and enjoyable.

What is it about working as a coach that has made this difference to my wellbeing and how I feel at work? And how might this be helpful to someone working in front line work who is not a coach? These are the questions that I found myself asking when I was contemplating writing this blog post for Refugee Action. To answer them, I have come up with four ‘lessons for wellbeing from coaching’. But first, it might be helpful to clarify what I mean by ‘coaching’.

What is coaching?

When I use the word ‘coaching’, I am talking about two things:

First about a mindset: a way of thinking about ourselves and the people we work to support.

This is a mindset which views each person as an expert in themselves (‘self-experts’); and which recognises that each of us is creative, resourceful and whole (i.e. a mindset which is person-centred). Adopting this mindset when working with another person means consciously repudiating our self-position of ‘the expert’ who can or should fix other people or their problems (a position which, by default, constructs the other person as the non-expert). Instead, it means working ‘expert-to-expert’ in a collaborative partnership to assist the other person to reach their goals or desired outcome. It is also a mindset that recognises self-determination and self-direction as vital seeds for sustainable and long-lasting change in the person being coached, so that they feel the benefits of it beyond the lifespan of the coaching relationship.

From this coaching mindset flows the second aspect: a way of working which is about creating space and opportunities for people to be heard and understood, for the purpose of hearing and understanding themselves better so that they gain clarity and grow in self-awareness. Through empathetic, purposeful and forward-looking conversations, coaching empowers people to imagine brighter futures, explore challenges, recognise their strengths and find their own answers; answers which are so often already within themselves.

Lessons for wellbeing from coaching

So, what are these lessons that coaching offers for people engaging in front line work, and who are finding the work is negatively impacting their wellbeing and mental health? 

1. Own your limits and your limitations

The most important and transferable lesson for wellbeing that I have learnt from working as a coach is the importance of recognising and owning my limits and my limitations. 

For many of us, our work and our sense of purpose or calling is to help people, especially people who are experiencing multiple, complex and interrelated disadvantages or difficulties. This means that quite often we may feel pressure/put pressure on ourselves to try and help them with all of their problems, even when it is beyond our remit, resources and professional skills/experience to do so. This can lead to overwork, but it can also put us in situations which we are not equipped to handle, or make us feel helpless or ineffective because the scale of the problems we are trying to solve are beyond us. In short, it’s a recipe for harm to our wellbeing.

As a coach, I choose to work within a set of clearly defined parameters which I share with each person I work with. I am clear with them and with myself both what I can do (coaching) and what I cannot (give them financial/legal/business advice, or help them with a mental health problem, for example), and I remind myself and them of this as necessary. I agree with them on what the outcomes are that they want to reach, and we make sure that these are realistic and appropriate for coaching. We agree how long we will be working together for, how long each session will be, and I am upfront about how available I will be to them for extra support outside of our coaching sessions (usually, available via email for short questions, but with a suggestion that bigger challenges are best brought up in our next coaching session). 

This way of working is one which respects my limits (my working hours, my energy levels, the scope of the work I am there to do) and my limitations (what I am qualified to do, safely and well) whilst still contributing to positive outcomes for the people I am helping. I have also found that it has the added benefit of building trust and confidence from the outset because I am clear and transparent about what I can do. Moreover, since many of the people I coach find it difficult to maintain boundaries in their own lives and prioritise their needs and wellbeing, working in this way also means modelling not only how to do this, but that it is ok to set limits and to say no.

2. Right-size your responsibility

Another lesson I have learnt from working as a coach for taking care of my wellbeing is how to let go of taking on too much responsibility for creating change in other people and their lives. 

This was quite possibly the hardest lesson to learn, since most of us are working in this field to help people and make a difference, right?? The problem is that when our desire to help other people becomes a feeling of responsibility for fixing them and solving their problems, we can fall into the trap of trying to control what is out of our control (other people's behaviours, feelings, unequal and unjust systems) which is a recipe for stress and frustration. Even more problematically, we can end up feeling and acting as a rescuer, which is ultimately disempowering for the person we are trying to help. In the process we might even take on the role of the self-sacrificing ‘martyr’. And when we can’t rescue them, because their problems are beyond the power and control of one person to solve, we end up feeling ineffectual, frustrated, and even resentful towards them.

As I mentioned above, coaching starts from an asset-based, person-centred mindset that each of us is creative, resourceful and whole, and capable of finding our own answers. When we work fully from this mindset, our responsibility for creating change shifts from solving other people's problems for them, to being responsible for showing up with a commitment to recognise the ‘self-expert’ in front of us; someone with innate skills, strengths and life experiences as valuable resources at their disposal. This is ‘right-sizing’ responsibility. Because when we step back from taking over responsibility for change in another person’s life, we make space for them to step forward.

3. Make time to reflect

Similarly to counselling and therapy, coaching as a profession emphasises the importance of reflective practice for the practitioner’s professional development, learning and also their wellbeing. I don’t think that having a reflective practice needs to be, or should be, solely the domain of coaches and therapists; rather, I see it as a tool which anyone in a supporting, caring or helping profession can and should have at their disposal.

The good news is that reflective practice can look like something as simple as taking time after a support session or meeting to pause and reflect on what has just taken place by asking yourself some simple questions such as:

  • How am I feeling right now? 
  • What can I celebrate from that session/meeting/conversation? 
  • What might I do differently next time?
  • What do I need support with? 

This could be done as a written exercise, or it could be just allowing yourself some quiet time to think through these questions and your answers. Reflective practice not only uncovers opportunities to learn and improve, but it also gives time and space to process thoughts and feelings, and decompress. When we are very busy, perhaps seeing many people in our working day who need support, it might feel like a luxury to grant ourselves 15-20 minutes break after a session; working as a coach has shown me that it is in fact essential in order to do this work sustainably and well.

4.Supervision is not a luxury

Before working as a coach, my experience of supervision in the charity sector was occasional meetings with line managers, usually squeezed into our busy schedules, to check in for progress reports, agree actions lists, and (now and again) to reflect on my career progression/goals. Unfortunately, I don’t think I am alone in this being my sole experience/understanding of supervision up to that point.

When I trained as a coach, however, I learnt another meaning of supervision: having access to professional support in order to reflect on and process those conversations/sessions/situations which you have found particularly troubling, challenging or triggering. Supervision in this sense means having a supportive space to step back and examine your thoughts and thought processes, feelings and reactions, to build self-awareness, gain insights, and to grow as a professional. I find it especially useful for those coaching conversations that I find hard to let go of. If I am still thinking about it or running it through my head the next day, it's usually a sign I need to take it to supervision!

Outside of coaching, counselling and therapy, supervision in this sense is not always made available, and yet it is an invaluable form of professional support and development that could benefit anyone working in a supporting, caring or helping role. 

Beyond the individual...

I was aware as I wrote the previous paragraph about supervision that, unlike the other lessons I have learnt from coaching which can be taken on board and hopefully adopted/adapted by individuals working in front line roles, supervision requires organisations to buy in to its value and necessity by finding funding for and providing it for staff, possibly with an external supervisor. But I think this is an important reminder that wellbeing at work is not solely the responsibility of individual employees. 

Individuals in frontline work can try to set boundaries based on their limits and limitations, but this will be easier for them if their role is clearly defined and if they feel encouraged and empowered to set boundaries and stick to them. On an organisational level, this might look like good role modelling from leaders, having accurate job descriptions, and creating a working culture which is equally as caring and compassionate towards employees as it is towards those who are coming to the organisation for assistance and support.

Similarly, individuals who are trying to right-size their responsibility for change can be supported by organisations designing services with realistic and achievable outcomes and outputs, rather than ones where overwork is ‘priced in’ and/or staff are responsible for outcomes that are actually outside of their control. They can also be supported by organisations challenging narratives which normalise or even celebrate over-work and self-sacrifice as desirable or essential for front line work; recognising that they are self-defeating in the long term as they harm staff wellbeing and disempower those the organisation is trying to help.

Lastly, individuals can be helped and encouraged to develop a reflective practice by their organisation as well. This might look like providing reflective practice groups, where colleagues can celebrate achievements, learn from each other’s work and support each other with challenges. But it might also mean ensuring that staff feel empowered to take time in between meetings or support sessions to reflect, process and decompress, rather than feeling under pressure to arrange back-to-back sessions. And this in turn might necessitate a re-evaluation of workloads and a re-prioritisation of workplace wellbeing as an essential component of front line work.

In conclusion

In their excellent TedXLondonWomen talk on the importance of collective care, not just self-care, for creating social change, Janey Starling and Seyi Falodun-Liburd observed that what we are practising every day is what we are building. If we are trying to collectively build a future where everyone thrives, then we need to start finding ways to thrive in our work, and not just survive it.

Coaching has made thriving possible for me. In an ideal world, coaching (both being coached and training in coaching skills) would be affordable and accessible for everyone who is engaged in front line work. As much as I and a growing number of other coaches are addressing the inaccessibility/unaffordability of coaching and coach training, however, the reality is that it remains largely out of reach to many who are working in helping, caring and support roles in the third sector.

Until we can bring about a democratisation of coaching, it nevertheless offers empowering paradigms and practices to support wellbeing at work, some of which I have shared here. My hope is that these can be adopted/adapted by any person or organisation providing support, care or help, so that thriving and not just surviving becomes the new norm for front line work.

Learn more about Laura

To find out more about Laura and her work, visit Laura’s LinkedIn or Instagram, or get in touch at