In the wake of a global health pandemic and the myriad work and personal life challenges it has created, exacerbated or simply brought into focus, millions are quitting their jobs in what’s being called the “Great Resignation,” and millions more are trying to renegotiate their working conditions and adjust their work-life boundaries and priorities. Even among those who like their current jobs, the confluence of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, major social unrest, and divisive and frightening political and economic conditions is leading to serious mental health challenges for huge numbers. About a third of all Americans in their primary working years (ages 18–59) reported being anxious or depressed in the past year, and that’s just the tip of the overall problem. Another swath of us is “languishing”— experiencing the feeling of emptiness, fogginess and stagnation that lies between depression and flourishing.

Whether they’ve already quit, are considering quitting, or are simply not feeling as excited by or as committed to their jobs anymore, nearly everyone I talk to these days seems to be contemplating the big questions: How am I balancing my time spent on work and non-work activities? What work would make me happiest or most fulfilled or able to make the biggest contribution? What’s my ikigai — my reason to get up and moving every day? How do I make, repair or bolster truly important interpersonal relationships?

These questions aren’t the type we can just dedicate a few afternoons of private thought to and expect to emerge from the fog with perfect clarity. In fact, for many of us — myself included — no amount of private reflection has proved sufficient. Nor has discussion with close friends or colleagues, the people who care deeply for us but aren’t really trained to help us work through these truly complex professional and personal issues. That’s why, undoubtedly, coaches and counselors report being busier than ever before.

But what, exactly, does a coach or a counselor do? How are they similar and different? When might one be a good fit for the challenges you’re facing? Probably not the right fit?

Those are the questions I recently asked a set of 15 professionals — seven counselors and eight executive coaches.

I start, below, with what these experts shared about the basics of coaching and counseling. Then, in a subsequent post, I’ll dig deeper into when each might be a better choice for someone facing specific challenges and opportunities.

What is a coach? A counselor?

Counselors, as I’m talking about them here, are licensed professionals who assess, diagnose and treat a myriad of mental health issues. Also called therapists or psychotherapists, they undergo extensive training, licensure examinations and continuing education requirements. Among the many categories of professionals who might be called mental health counselors, licensed psychologists have the highest level of education and training. Psychologists have generally spent at least five years earning a Ph.D. or equivalent terminal degree in a relevant field, plus several additional years undergoing thousands of hours of supervised clinical training.

In the U.S., counselors are governed by state licensing boards that seek to ensure competence, ethical treatment, confidentiality and compliance with the law. Counselors are expected to use evidence-based, profession-backed treatment practices and to remain current via continuing education and other practices. Many health insurance plans offer coverage for counseling.

On the other hand, coaches are individuals who aspire to help others identify and develop specific work-related goals or skills and to apply them to specific current issues or future aspirations. Relative to counseling, coaching — as a formalized occupation or role — is a nascent field with significantly lower barriers to entry. Increasingly, though, coaches are likely to have attended a formal training program and, in many cases, have been certified by the International Coaching Federation (IFC), an organization focused on lifelong learning and ethical standards among coaches. The IFC has three levels of certification (associate, professional and master). The IFC’s most prestigious label — master certified coach (MCC) — is reserved for coaches who, among other requirements, have over 200 hours of training and 2,250 hours of paid coaching experience. Maintaining certification requires continuing education and a willingness to sign a rigorous Code of Ethics.

There are currently no formal regulatory or legal requirements associated with the designation “coach,” which the people I talked to worry harms the industry’s brand. Presently, few (if any) health insurance plans in the U.S. cover coaching services.

Similarities and differences?

Coaches and counselors share the same broad aspiration — to help people increase their self-awareness, grow their skills, and eliminate barriers to well-being and success. And most of the people I talked to acknowledge that there are many issues that both coaches and counselors can skillfully address. (Note that by law, counselors can provide work-related coaching but coaches cannot provide mental health services.) That said, here are some general differences in how you might think about coaching versus counseling. Note that these should be thought of as degrees of focus, not absolutes.

  • Coaches focus more on the future; counselors focus more on helping clients understand their pasts.
  • Coaches focus on goal setting and action planning that facilitate future growth or thriving; counselors focus on healing pain or injury.
  • Coaches focus on unlocking potential; counselors focus on solving problems.
  • Coaches focus on growth without the assumption that anything with the client is wrong or in need of treatment; counselors focus on diagnosing and treating identified problems.

Should I get a coach or a counselor?

If you’re like most people who’ve been highly successful, you may be wondering if either coaching or counseling is right or necessary for you. Isn’t coaching just for people on the verge of derailing at work? And isn’t counseling for people who are somehow “weak” or “broken”? Can’t you just push through and hope things work themselves out?

If that kind of thinking sounds like you, ask yourself whether you’d view your organization or someone you cared about this way. Would you insist your organization is already perfect and has no need to continue to learn, grow and adapt despite obvious evidence to the contrary? Can you solve every problem your organization has by yourself, or do you rely on experts for help? Do you label others’ pain, confusion or need for help as a sign that they’re somehow inferior?

Is coaching or counseling right for you? There’s no way I can say. But I do know the need for coaches and counselors isn’t going away any time soon — experts agree that the COVID pandemic will end well before the mental health pandemic does, and the evolving world of work promises ongoing stress. Adding trusted professionals to one’s support team seems unlikely to make anything worse — and might do a whole lot of good.

For more on the conditions in which a coach or a counselor might be most useful and appropriate, please see James R. Detert's follow-up post, Coaches and Counselors: Which One Is Right for Me? 

Learn more about building the skill of courage, the lynchpin of leadership
Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work
About the Expert

James R. Detert

John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration

An expert on leadership and ethics, Detert’s research focuses on workplace courage, why people do or don’t speak up, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research and consulting have been conducted across a variety of global high-technology and service-oriented industries, in addition to public sector institutions, including K–12 education.

Detert has received awards for his teaching in MBA and Executive MBA programs, as well as academic best paper awards for his work, which appears in many online and print media outlets. Prior to coming to Darden, he taught at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University.

BBA, University of Wisconsin; MBA, University of Minnesota; M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University