March 27, 2020

Coaching through COVID-19: Bravely’s role in workplace wellness

Toby Hervey, Co-Founder and CEO, Bravely

“Do you consider Bravely a wellness startup?”

The moderator’s question took me by surprise. I was sitting on a panel (Stacklists’s ‘Building a Wellness Startup’ event) with three other founders of wellness companies, and suddenly I found myself justifying Bravely’s presence on the (Zoom) dias.

It’s not an entirely unfair question.

At Bravely, we help people navigate important and tough conversations at work (particularly regarding performance), manage professional relationships, and set career development goals. The subject matter of our sessions doesn’t always overtly connote wellness. And yet, session reports from our Pros indicate that one in five people are suffering from ‘General Stress’ as it relates to the moment that brought them to seek Bravely’s coaching support.

At Bravely, we extol the power of coaching in “moments that matter,” and stress surrounds so many of the challenging moments we face at work (especially right now). These moments dramatically impact the rest of our lives and enhance our overall sense of personal wellness. In our collective moment, a global pandemic with enormous ramifications on public health and economic stability, we are incessantly reminded of the powerful role that work plays in our lives and in our daily attempts to keep those lives well.

The COVID-19 pandemic proves that, on one hand, the daily stress of work pales in comparison to the fear of illness and poor health (for ourselves, our loved ones, and those around us). Our communal health and safety supersedes all else. But there are additional existential stressors wrought by this crisis. This most dramatic and devastating blow to our economic system will leave millions of businesses shuttered and millions of jobs lost. The implications for those most affected by the economic downturn will highlight that, for much of the world, work means something more fundamental. It means baseline financial security and supporting a family. An existential threat to work is a threat to existence in itself.

For those of us privileged enough to be able to do our jobs from home and keep earning, we can’t pretend it’s not stressful in a different, but valid, way.

Work-from-home dynamics — especially when they occur this suddenly — combined with a heightened set of fears and anxieties about the world amidst total disruption to our regular lives, deeply complicate our workdays and our wellbeing. Like our fears about their health, our worries about our loved ones’ jobs and financial security are inescapable, especially if we’re not in a position to help. Even the smaller things, like endlessly interpreting the intent of terse emails and non-punctuated chat messages, can be triggering. Interpersonal dynamics, which so often drive our emotional state about work, now require new approaches and reframing. The potential for isolation looms powerfully in every long stretch without a Zoom call scheduled. Everything feels more fraught, laced with a tense uncertainty and angst, as we all grasp for any sense of security.

The evolution of our session themes on Bravely (where we largely serve professionals who can be working from home during this time) highlights this unfortunate shared experience. Over the last 3 weeks, sessions related to the stress of COVID-19 and WFH have grown 127% weekly, and now represent a third of all sessions. We’re stressed about work, and because it factors so much into our overall sense of wellbeing, and because it’s so much more than just work stress, we’re looking for help where we can get it.

Our session reports provide additional texture to what people are feeling. People who have started new roles are struggling to find their footing (and isn’t starting a new job intense enough even in calmer times?). While some cohabitants in a shared home workspace (whether a spouse or a roommate) might be the source of some work-related stress, people are remarking often that they sought someone else to talk with precisely because they don’t want to burden family members with personal troubles at a time when everyone is struggling. Because of what’s happening, words like “stress,” “anxiety,” and “worried” permeate our session descriptions these recent weeks, increasing as people anticipate long periods of remote working and fear the repercussions of such a sudden economic decline.

Even in sessions that aren’t primarily about stress, the conversation often starts with stress management. Our Head Pro, Maureen Kennedy, remarked, “In most sessions, we’re spending 15-20 min addressing life stress factors right out of the gate, and once there’s a plan to address those, we start to work on work.” Our Pros start with addressing stress and offer emotional support right off the bat to clear the path for the employee to start thinking and reasoning to find ways to move forward at work.

Once there’s a plan to address [stress factors], we start to work on work.

Maureen Kennedy, Head Pro, Bravely

This moment, unprecedented as it is, is where the power of coaching can serve as a guiding light to our wellbeing. People are beginning their Bravely sessions feeling a loss of control and are walking away with a plan to take it back: some mix of a daily practice of self-care, an intention to express more vulnerability with colleagues, a prioritized to-do list for the week. One of our Pros shared that he’s evolved his typical opener to more effectively speak to people in this moment. My favorite example: he asks, “How are you coping?” rather than, “How are you feeling?” A simple semantic upgrade sets a path toward actionability and self-empowerment. This is what coaching can provide in acute moments designed to overwhelm us.

Looking back to Stacklist’s Wellness Panel, I’m grateful I got to be part of the discussion alongside the other powerful solutions on the Zoom screen. In today’s climate, any panel discussion about wellness that doesn’t address the role that work plays in our wellbeing is missing an essential component of what makes us well. In this global moment, we’ll evangelize more than ever for how critical coaching and other support systems are in helping us be well while fighting to make an impact with our work. 

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