Is there any impact of positive psychology interventions .....
I recently wrote for volunteers to support my research in my final Masters degree dissertation. I was overwhelmed with the positive response, and delighted to have received over 50 questionnaires completed. This gave my research statistical validity and allowed me to write about the impact of receiving positive psychological interventions in executive coaching.
I received my mark last week and was awarded a distinction in my research which I am proud to have submitted a strong and relevant piece of work
I am sharing my completed dissertation for those who might be interested in reading the outcome and content. It highlights the importance of understanding our C-Class executives suffer, as all people do, from stress and depression in the workplace.
Thank you sincerely for all those who took part, without your openness and contribution, the research would not have been possible
The author would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance, support and guidance of the following people in conducting this research study:
Dr Rona Hart, not only the module leader but someone who has supported the distance learning program and made it an enjoyable and challenging experience.
Sok-Ho Trinh, research supervisor and my critical friend. Thank you for your patience and challenge.
Participants, to all the C-class executives who put their faith in me and shared their experiences, this hidden taboo of stress in the boardroom and the opportunities to take control is in a better place because of your openness.
Table of Contents
Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine whether executive coaching grounded in positive psychology can result in reducing the occurrence of stress in the workplace for C-Class executives.
Material and Method: Fifty-eight C-Class executives (97% male, mean age M= 46, SD= 8.09) participated in the study. Subjects perceived levels of stress were self-reported. Subject reported their perceived levels of stress pre-intervention and post intervention. The intervention included savouring and strength as central dimensions of the positive psychology approach. Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale was used for data collection. The paired samples t-test was used to establish whether there was a significant difference between the pre-intervention and post intervention PSS scores.
Results: The mean value of pre-intervention stress scores was M= 27.36 (SD= 3.37) and the mean value of post-intervention stress scores was M= 18.31 (SD= 3.67). The difference between the two means was statistically significant. Additionally, a statistically significant positive correlation (r= .702, p=.001) was identified between the pre-intervention and post intervention scores.
Conclusions: Savouring and strength positive psychology interventions are perceived as beneficial by the C-Class executives who received coaching and the PPI intervention contributed to reducing stress levels among the participants.
Research has long shown that the physical and psychological health of employees is tied to workplace stress (Tennant 2001), (workplace in the context of this study refers to a corporate one) due to the nature of stressful response to unpleasant external pressures ad stimuli: anxiety, irritability, nervousness, fear and even aggression and depression (Mc Elroy, & Hevey, 2014). Its effects have been documented extensively, including the tie between chronic stress and negative effects on immune response (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). This, naturally, leads to workplace issues, from decreased productivity of individual workers to disruptions in the functioning of entire workplaces or organisations, and therefore a need to actively counteract all these elements (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The active, deliberate nature of workplace stress management has, consequently, led to the emergence of many different psychological, social and psychosocial strategies (Park et al 1996), which have come together to be referred under the blanket term positive psychology: this is a science that strives to understand and draw benefits from the positive, subjective characteristic of individuals and institutions for the purpose of improving and/or maximising quality of life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). More to the point, it has led to the proliferation of the term executive coaching, a concept that covers all those forms of organisational learning (teaching, skill distribution, collaboration, etc.) that can be transmitted or conveyed from one person to another (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007).
At its core, executive coaching is aimed at helping leaders of organisations to solve issues in the workplace, via investment of time, skill, attention and teaching into psychologically and socially developing individual workers and organisations as a whole (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). This is done by developing personnel management skills based on the model of a human being as one driven by wisdom, courage, responsibility, hope, perseverance, mindfulness, creativity and other positive features (Sheldon, 2004).
In other words, executive coaching means to apply the principles of positive psychology to the purpose of developing employees, or allowing employees to develop themselves, into leadership (executive) positions within the workplace. This as opposed to relying on pathology, which has largely driven all psychological research so far (Sheldon, 2004).
Executive coaching has come to be considered the means towards instilling and exhibiting professionalism, insight and commitment into employees (Grant et al 2009), thus making them suitable for being granted leadership positions (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). In practice, this means forming personal ties and relationships with accredited coaches, consultants and even therapists if necessary, in addition to the vast base of educational / instructional materials (books, conferences, courses) that various professionals, foundations and organisations have published over the years (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). All the while, success is measured in how effectively life quality improved through the subjective experiences and positive characteristics that are conveyed, instilled or established (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Unfortunately, though research exists showing that executive coaching can serve to cut down on workplace stress (Gyllensten & Palmer 2005), it is still unclear which factors actually lead to success, due to a dearth of empirical evidence on each positive psychology intervention and their roles, as well as the aforementioned fact that a definition of stress as a concept has proven elusive (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). This applies to C-Class Executives of large businesses in the private sector, C-Class being those executives who hold the title Chief within their role, and large businesses being defined as organisations of 250 employees or higher (IoD 2017; Blanton & Wasylyshyn, 2018). This study has been carried out to shore up this gap in research, namely, to investigate whether two specific positive psychology interventions, when used in executive coaching, can reduce workplace stress (i.e., reduce the frequency with which situations charged with workplace stress occur).
1.1. Aims and Objectives
The overall aim of this study is to establish if specific executive coaching grounded in positive psychology within C-Class executives can reduce the occurrence of stress and depression in the workplace. To achieve this aim, two research questions require exploration:
· “Are savouring and strength positive psychology interventions perceived as beneficial and effective by C-Class executives that had received the coaching?”
· “Did the interventions result in decrease in the instances (and/or severity) of stress in the C-Class executives’ life?”
To answer these questions, participants of this study will be posed questions concerning their perceived stress levels after coaching. Job demand will be looked upon as a primary stressor, due to the work overload and time pressures associated with it (Gyllensten & Palmer 2005) - it is assumed that coaching will reduce the strain associated with the workplace thanks to improved planning and organisation skills of coached executives (Gyllensten & Palmer 2005). Additionally, as suggested by the transactional theory of stress (Mühlberger & Traut-Mattausch, 2015), subjective perceptions of work pressures will theoretically be changed due to coaching.
The following hypotheses thus are:
· H1: C-Class executives who receive executive coaching delivered through positive psychology interventions experience reduced levels/instances of stress.
· H2: C-Class executives who report enhanced control and focus as a result of coaching report lower perceived stress levels.
In practical terms, current research points to executive coaching as a potential method for carrying out organisational change, but there is no way to know what “ingredients” make up the recipe for effective executive coaching. The character of the coaching relationship, (dyadic/one-on-one vs. group coaching approach) and the use of transformational and/or transactional leadership on the part of the coach are two likely options (Mühlberger & Traut-Mattausch, 2015). Prior to this, executive coaching has been exclusively seen as the domain of effective goal attainment, or for purely situational uses (Grant & Spence, 2010). More precisely, they need to be examined in the context of positive psychology interventions, otherwise it will remain impossible to design the sort of integrated approach that the little research that does exist has found to be critical to addressing workplace stress of C-Class executives (LaMontagne et al., 2014).
Previously, research (theoretical and empirical alike) centred on methodologies or the nature of relationship between the coach and executive client, despite evidence that other senior staff members, or even the C-Class executive Chair / coach themselves, create, affect or are affected by workplace stress, and therefore have significant impact on any coaching process (Blanton & Wasylyshyn, 2018). Knowledge is required of C-Class executive individuals who were or are involved in this process, and more specifically of stress (and its scale) among C-Class executives from large private businesses.
This study employs a mixed methods approach, specifically a questionnaire survey composed of scale-based questions, to examine the personal experiences of a representative sample of 58 participants that currently participate in, or have recently completed, executive coaching, as well as undertaken one or both positive psychology interventions outlined previously. Recollection prior to the intervention was evaluated via the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) questionnaire. The PSS was used again after the completion of the intervention. SPSS analysis was then used to identify, analyse and report patterns emerging from collected data, as detailed in the Findings and Analysis sections of this study.
1.4. Study Structure
This study has been structured in six chapters, not including the bibliography.
· Introduction – the present chapter;
· Literature review – before a critical examination becomes possible for the current body of research evidence pertaining to positive psychology as related to workplace stress, the phenomena and psychological concepts will be properly defined.
· Methodology – a more in-depth description than the prior, brief overview of the research methodology will be provided here.
· Findings – here, the data from the questionnaire and subsequent SPSS statistics will be described.
· Data Analysis – the findings summarised in the prior section will be critically analysed here, based on the theory in the literature review and the techniques laid out in the methodology.
· Conclusion – conclusions are drawn from the study and requisite recommendations are formulated in this final chapter of the study, as summarised below.
1.5. Preliminary Summary of Findings
The study sheds light that positive psychology interventions are indeed effective in reducing workplace stress, and even identified the major influencers that affect the success of executive coaching. This provides a blueprint (ICF. 2016) for coaching practitioners and researchers to study and apply executive coaching and positive psychology in the context of workplace mental health. This empirical evidence should lead to improvements to workplace effectiveness and employee performance and retention, all direct benefit to any organisational stakeholders and a testament to the usefulness of striving towards designing more and more effective approaches to workplace stress management.
2. Literature Review
As noted, much has been done in an attempt to define stress, but the closest thing to a universal definition continues to be vague at best: stress is defined as the range of responses to unpleasant pressures and external stimuli, making it a blanket term for anxiety. Nervousness, irritability, fear, aggression and depression (Mc Elroy, & Hevey, 2014). The lack of a medical definition for the term persist, however, due to the ongoing disagreement among medical professionals on whether stress is a cause or a manifestation of these responses (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Some consensus does exist, however, even if stress continues to not fall under the classification of psychiatric diagnosis: stress is a potential cause for many issues, not just anxiety and depression but actual, physical health problems such as impairment to immune response (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). The phenomenon appears to have a transactional nature. Considered by some medical practitioners to be a consequence of imbalance in the staff-workplace relationship (the interaction between employees and the working environment) (Smith, & Lazarus, 1990; Cox, 1993).
Existing research, as the literature review will later show, does not have enough empirical material on the best coaching methods for reducing workplace stress symptoms. That same research does nevertheless indicate the existence of several individual and organisation-wide benefits to executive coaching. This highlights the necessity to carry out research on these issues, hence this study and its focus on how positive psychology interventions can be achieved via executive coaching, whether at individual level or on a broader, organisation-wide scale. Without this, the various benefits of executive coaching, especially at C-Class level, will elude most executive coaches and their subjects alike, simply due to the inability to design a proper approach (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). To provide a foundation for finally conducting primary research on the topic, several topics must be outline and a number of terms defined.
2.1. Relevant Definitions
To expand on the brief overview given before, executive coaching is an umbrella concept for those forms of organisational learning instilled in employees for the purpose of developing and growing employees into leadership positions via one-one-one coaching interactions (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). Originally, the concept was centred purely around enabling such leaders to solve or overcome issues in the workplace, but has since evolved to instilling professionalism, commitment and insight into these individuals, making it a form of resource investment, albeit with abstract, immaterial resources (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007.). Thus, the goals of professional relations with coaches, consultants and therapists are no longer purely pragmatic, even if they are ultimately measured by practical impact on organisational performance. Instead, the education materials have become more varied in recent years, depending on what sort of organisation, foundation or individual professional conceives a new conference, course or even book on the topic of executive coaching (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007.). At the heart of all this lies the field of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The science of positive psychology deals with the positive individual, institutional and their subjective experiences that contribute to a good, high quality life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Its goal is to retrieve or develop the model human being, or rather a model for a human being whose actions are determined by wisdom, courage, responsibility, perseverance, mindfulness, creativity, hope and other positive features. Through this, it is believed, an individual will always be able to act in a fashion conductive to happiness ad optimism, incidentally, allowing for greater success in studying how individuals and societies achieve and/or develop happiness (Sheldon, 2004).
Stress is of import to positive psychology, being the reaction (response) to external and internal pressures or stimuli that are unpleasant (even negative) in nature, making it the prime obstacle to achieving the model of a positive human being described above. It leads to (and in turn is caused by) anxiety (even fear), irritability, nervousness, aggression and depression, all of which lead to the opposite of happiness and optimism, depression being an especially egregious case (Mc Elroy, & Hevey, 2014). Conceptually, even though stress falls short of a psychiatric diagnosis and (as previously mentioned) is subject to disagreement between professionals on whether it is a cause or consequences of other issues, it shares many traits with such diagnoses, chief among them the extended duration it tends to last (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). It is quite telling that there is such a term as chronic stress – effectively placing it in the same category as chronic health conditions – and it is doubly telling that chronic stress has been consistently correlated with mental health problems (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). This includes not only the depression and anxiety, but even physical health issues (immune response, or failure thereof) which only tend to worsen or add to existing stress symptoms in a vicious cycle (Baldwin et al., 2002). It has proven enough for those in the field to set aside scholarly disagreements over how to define stress, as happened for depression and anxiety, whose boundaries are similarly nebulous (Baldwin et al., 2002). Ultimately, emphasis has come to be placed on the transactional nature of stress and seeing it as a disequilibrium between a person and their environment (Smith & Lazarus, 1990). This, in the context of the workplace, means that workplace stress is tied to the relationship between staff and the workplace as environment (Smith & Lazarus, 1990; Cox, 1993).
All told, workplace stress can be defined as any significant negative change in the mental and/or physical wellbeing of an employee due to workplace challenges or pressures (Thomas et al., 2006). Given the serious effects of chronic stress on health, both psychological and physical, eliminating or at least minimizing workplace stress should be a prime goal of any organisation, and all measures to do this should be preventative (as opposed to ameliorative) according to the Health & Safety Executive UK (HSE) (Cousins et al., 2004). In other words, rather than try to institute programs, policies or even sanctions for absenteeism, drops in productivity or dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, the aim should always be to reduce or remove the workplace stress that leads to these behaviours (Tarafdar et al., 2007). Among other things, this should cover management, development and changes in organisational culture that can eliminate workplace stress, which is to say eliminate the issues that caused it to begin with (Tarafdar et al., 2007). Coaching-based approaches have, thus far in research, proven to be the most effective means of achieving all this, and also benefit from higher predictability of results compared to group interventions, which was a big factor in choosing this area to be the focus of this study (Cooper & Cartwright, 1997; Wright, 2007).
2.2. The effectiveness of executive coaching in reducing stress: evidence from the current empirical research
Practically speaking, the role of executive coaching is to confer upon executives and managers those skills they need to provide leadership to employees, especially during times of change and stress (as they are often connected), frequently with emphasis on increasing managers’ and executives’ ability to measure their actions’ effect on the other workers. Which is to say, executive coaching instils increased respect for other opinions, educates them on what constitutes wellness, and generally encourages empathy (Wright, 2007). Currently, according to evidence from the British Psychological Society (Page & Haan, 2014), executive coaching is treated as a status symbol for private organisations, being considered a staple of insightful investment in executive development (Page & Haan, 2014). This was not always the case, however. Indeed, originally executive coaching was just another path to attempt the solving of problems in an organisation, making it exclusive outcome-focused (Cooper and Cartwright, 1997; Passmore & Gibbes; 2007).
To understand where executive coaching started and how it has changed over the past fifteen years, it serves to give at least a cursory overview to its roots, starting with the study by Cooper and Cartwright in 1997, when the effectiveness of workplace coaching towards cutting workplace stress was first proven empirically (Cooper and Cartwright; 1997). It was they that found evidence for the usefulness of reducing stress and helping individual employees develop their own ways and skills for managing their stress. Later, a quasi-experimental study by Gyllensten and Palmer (2005), stress and anxiety levels were seen dropping in a group that received coaching, compared to the controlled group, even though the coaching had no observable impact on depression. This indicates that the observations of the researchers and the experiences reported by the participants themselves did not match, something that may or may not have been due to the way self-reports tend to overestimate effects (Page & Haan, 2014).
Regardless of the discrepancy, the two studies were enough foundation for a new path of research to solidify, leading to the study by Wright in 2007, which tested various outcomes of coaching such as absenteeism. It was found to drop by a quarter (25%) for employees that received wellbeing training, or employees working under an executive that received coaching for such (Wright, 2007). Teaching executives the skills of insight and planning was later shown to be particularly important skills for executives, with Ladegård (2011) confirming a tight connection between social support, perceived job demand and control, and the reduction of workplace stress. What may be more important than any one of these individual longitudinal studies, however, is that all of them confirmed executive coaching as highly effective in boosting workplace resilience and wellbeing, something that Grant et al. (2009) corroborated in their own research with workplace executives, and then later with high-school students of teachers that received executive coaching interventions (Grant et al., 2010).
The studies outlined above had one common weakness in that all of them, especially the later ones, used the coaching methods that were highly similar, tainting the results (and therefore conclusions) with the possibility of researcher bias. Fortunately, later studies that used randomised controlled trial methodology provided further, high quality and reliably empirical evidence for the positive effect on workplace stress and resilience by executive coaching (De Haan & Page, 2013). Among the most recent such studies are two meta analyses by Theeboom et al. (2014) and Jones et al. (2014). According to the research by Theeboom et al. (2014), executive coaching can have positive effects on individual wellbeing, performance, self-regulation, and generally coping with work pressures (i.e. workplace stress). Admittedly, the study only found moderate impact, but it was nevertheless a positive, consistent effect for the study sample. This held true for the research by Jones et al. (2014), who confirmed the positive connection between executive coaching and individual wellbeing, as well as performance at work. Given these trends in research, it is no surprise that executive coaching approach to employee and organisational management, has expanded rapidly during the past decade and a half. That being said, the field of research of executive coaching has not advanced as quickly if the body of research available to this study is any indication, echoing prior observations made by Passmore & Gibbes (2007) and Grant et al. (2010). As of 2007, most other than the few cited so far on executive coaching have been low-quality, with qualitative approaches instead of quantitative, empirical or statistical analysis used (Passmore & Gibbes, 2007).
Moreover studies tend to lack proper randomisation or control group use, or they have too small sample sizes, or the methodology is insufficiently reported upon, with postgraduate theses being the bulk of the available body of research, hardly the most reliable or valid of sources (Passmore & Gibbes, 2007) and usually left unpublished even when they were sufficiently reliable or valid (Evers et al., 2006; Passmore & Gibbes, 2007). Most studies were also done by people other than psychologists, which is unfortunate since psychologists are the ones uniquely capable of conducting reflective, in-depth research on the efficacy and use of coaching methodologies, even if they are not the only professionals involved in executive coaching (Evers et al., 2006). All told, the studies by Ladegård (2011), Grant et al. (2010), Theeboom et al. (2014) and Jones et al. (2014) are anomalies in a nebulous, inconsistent and unreliable research field, leading to the paucity of empirical research that prompted the undertaking of the present study.
Why this paucity of empirical evidence on what approach works better than another is unclear: it could be due to costs of coaching programs (and research thereof), it could be due to the challenges inherent in randomized controlled trials in workplaces, or other such interventions, it could be due to all of these issues (Grant et al., 2010). Using either as the unique experimental condition, such research could be done to finally gain insight into what approaches work and why, finally allowing for executive coaching methodologies to be improved or even reinvented if needed, in a manner not too dissimilar from how this approach has been reliably applied in psychotherapy (Stiles et al., 2008). This study, with its mixed methods investigation of C-Class executive coaching in a private business, should be able to serve as an example of such a research endeavour.
2.3. Positive psychology interventions in organisational coaching practice (PPI)
The interventions that fall under the umbrella of positive psychology are many and varied, a natural consequence of the multitude of factors and ways in which one might achieve optimal functioning, with or without traditional forms of psychotherapy factored in (Seligman, 2012). The low reliability and validity of the studies carried out in this field (Rusk & Waters 2013) (Hendriks et al. 2019) is as much a reason for this as it is for executive coaching: most research on positive psychology and its uses consists of short-term studies, or ones where all patients were suffering from stress and therefore failed to assess the full effectiveness of positive psychology, which is to say it left it unclear if PP is as useful for healthy people as it is for stressed ones (Kaufman, 2006). Besides the reliability and validity issues, studies on PP usually looked at different interventions for different study groups, leaving no way to determine if two or more PP techniques could be combined for extra benefit, or if there could be any complementary or supplementary benefits to combining them with other therapeutic approaches for that matter (Donaldson et al., 2014).
Compounding the matter is that there is also no actual, universal formula for building positive emotion, or even individual traits in general, which means that there is never a sure-fire way to restore the sense of purpose in employees or organisations (Donaldson et al., 2014). Still, some commonalities have distinguished themselves through their effectiveness, even if they are still being researched: randomized controlled trials have found that major PPIs, especially those designed to identify individual strengths, are consistently successful in alleviating stress, or at least symptoms of stress, similarly for identifying and using three positive things that occur daily (Kaufman, 2006; Seligman et al., 2005).
That said, the past ten years have seen a considerable growth in peer-reviewed literature on PP, with higher-quality methodology and a growing variety of tested interventions, allowing for something approaching a consensus to be created in the field, not only for patients/recipients of positive psychology but also for clients coached using approaches derives from PP (Donaldson et al., 2014). PPIs were also confirmed to boost not only wellbeing but also reduce symptoms of depression, as confirmed by randomised controlled trials (Bolier et al., 2013). Even these studies, however, have their foibles, with reviews being critical of them for thee heterogeneity of research material, and the diversity in study populations that muddled results to the point where the only guarantee given was that more research was necessary (Donaldson et al., 2014; Bolier et al., 2013). Nevertheless, studies such as the one by Meyers et al. (2012) continue to push forward into the field. In the research, the authors looked at what data was available on how PP could be applied in organisations, with focus on measurable variables and how they were affected by PPIs based on professional performance and wellbeing. The study found that lowered stress and burnout levels were prevalent “side-effects” of the PPIs, with anxiety and depression also experienced a drop-in occurrence (Meyers et al. 2012)
Unfortunately, even though research continues to stress the importance of developing PP theory by PP coaches (Mills et al., 2013), there is little practical guidance to be gained considering the diversity and inconsistency of the methods and study samples involved, to the point where the only consensus seems to be that there needs to be a good relationship between a coach and the client (Page & Haan, 2014). As this is too subjective a matter to statistically measure through the chosen methodology, emphasis will instead be placed on PPIs themselves and their (perceived) outcomes, since PPIs have at least been proven to enable stress reduction (Meyers et al., 2012). More specifically, strengths interventions (Aspinwall et al. 2004) will be factored in, these being PPIs with a focus on acknowledging physical, social, and mental resources as a means to build strengths and developing personal growth and success (Aspinwall et al. 2004.).
Secondly, the PPI of “savouring” will be used as a prerequisite as well, which Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff describe as “noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life – the positive counterpart to coping. Savouring is more than pleasure – it also involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (Bryant & Veroff 2007). Since positive psychology seeks to translate research evidence into practice, it is important to determine if either of these coaching methods (if not others) could play the role of platform for incorporating PP knowledge into application on an individual, professional and social basis within executive contexts (Grant & Spence, 2010; Foster & Lloyd, 2007).
If nothing else, the field of positive psychology has provided a classification of human character strengths (Peterson & Park, 2004), which can be the foundation on which the practice of workplace coaching can be constructed, that it may be practiced as researchers suggest - a form of applied psychology grounded in deep understanding of theory (Seligman, 2007; Sheldon, 2011). Research has already highlighted that coaches can potentially play the role of developers of PP theory (Grant, & Cavanagh, 2011). This points to an inherence importance of accounting for coaches’ perceptions and experiences in future studies, not just those of the clients. As such, this study sets out to assess the effect of savouring and/or strengths interventions on not just any employees and executives, but the coaches themselves. Specifically, the study involved people in C-Class executive positions for organisations where executive coaching utilising positive psychology interventions are utilised or have been recently completed. The following section details the particularities of the methodology.
A non-experimental mixed methods approach was used, based around a questionnaire whose questions were formulated based on the focus of positive psychology: subjective perceptions of individuals on what benefits their wellbeing (Baker et al., 2002; Briner, 1997). The limited sample eliminated the possibility of broad, generalizable statistics, so the study instead employed a within-subjects approach where participants were asked to describe their experiences pre- and post-completion of the PPI-based executive coaching course they had undergone. This way, even if the same set of data could lead to different conclusions if it were to be analysed by another individual (Charmaz, 2006), a measure of reflexivity could still be incorporated in the analytic aspects of this project. Thought processes and associated biases and assumptions of participants were also recorded by the researcher, forming a research diary (Blaxter et al., 2001). This measure is no guarantee of objectivity but helped determine if and how potential biases affected findings. This way, other researchers will be able to assess the analytic process that informed this study’s conclusions, which conferred upon this study a higher measure of methodological reliability and validity than its small sample would otherwise allow (Charmaz, 2006; Blaxter et al., 2001).
This study involved 58 participants, a greater number than the 50 originally planned. All participants held C-Class executive positions with large private business organisations that use or had recently used executive coaching based around positive psychology interventions. To ensure that participants were suitable for the study, they were all initially contacted to ascertain the nature of the positive psychology intervention they had experienced. Purposeful sampling enacted based on the researcher’s theoretical knowledge of the studied population then served to pick out the final study sample, an approach validated as efficient and reliable by prior studies of this type (Tongco, 2007). Once the sample was identified, the researcher contacted the viable participants either through a designated organisational intermediary or directly as each case required. Consent forms (Appendix 6) were then supplied, containing information sheets outlining the study’s aim, methodology and dissemination plans. Only participants that gave their written consent were supplied an electronic copy of the questionnaires (Appendix 7) used to inform the statistical analysis.
Several independent variables were used, each measuring one facet of the effectiveness of C-Class executive coaching in reducing workplace stress influencers of that have been identified by existing literature (De Haan & Page, 2013). The questionnaires were designed to explore the personalities of respondents, what efficacy they saw in the outcome of coaching (if any), and the occurrence of stress and depression before and after PPI (Beehr & O'Hara, 1987). Issues of power were considered, as well as context since they are intertwined (Aléx & Hammarström, 2008). Reflexive practice was employed extensively to maximise researcher awareness of potential dominance issues, ensuring that the questionnaire did not guide the questionnaire participants towards certain issues while repressing others.
3.4. Research procedure and data analysis
Mixed method methodology was used to generate raw statistical data via closed questions delivered via a questionnaire, providing precise guidance for respondents to grade their views, personal opinions, perceptions and biases on the issues presented (Baker et al., 2002). The findings were then subjected to thematic analysis, whereby patterns within gathered evidence were identified through structured analytical data examination (Nowell et al., 2017). Each questionnaire was analysed manually to identify keywords that helped identify subthemes and capturing relevant details. These subthemes were then grouped into broader themes, allowing the researcher to formulate and report the general or even universal patterns that the gathered evidence identified. Based on all this, conclusions could finally be drawn on whether the hypotheses presented in this proposal can be accepted or should be rejected.
3.5. Ethical considerations and risk assessment
No personal risks to the researcher were identified as inherent to conducting the proposed research project. However, any research involving real people always carried some ethical risks. The author followed the guidance in the Code of Ethics and Conduct (BPS, 2018) which demands obeisance of principles of respect, competence, responsibility and integrity. Respect for participants’ dignity was ensured by protecting their privacy and confidentiality, through anonymity of all questionnaires. Written consent was sought from all potential respondents as well, before the study was even begun. Self-determination was protected as well, by pairing the consent forms with information sheets that informed the participants of the aim and methods of research and dissemination. The complexity of relationships between organisation executives and their impact on coaching efficacy was a particularly sensitive matter here, meaning that extra efforts were needed to avoid a breach of trust, respect and confidentiality within those organisations.
To ensure data was analysed and interpreted accurately, the researcher strove to exhibit the best academic and personal integrity, honesty and accuracy, with caution taking precedence even when presenting research claims fully supported by empirical evidence. Bias was minimised and professionalism maximised by referring to this research methodology throughout the entire course of the project, with mindfulness towards any areas where their expertise might be limited, in which case assistance and further theoretical knowledge were sough as needed.
Finally, the ethical board of the researcher’s academic institution was consulted for approval, which was provided before the present study was commenced.
4.1. Descriptive statistics
4.1.1. Demographic characteristics
The descriptive statistics analysis helped observed the demographic characteristics of the sample considered in the study. Most of the participants were male, approximately 97% (Figure 1 Appendix 1).
Age-wise the sample consisted mostly of individuals ranging from 41 to 50-year olds (40%). The following highest category was that of those above 51 years old (35%) and the third highest ranking percentage was that of those between 31 and 40 years old (22%). Individuals below 31 years old represented only 3% of the sample (Figure 2 Appendix 1).
The mean age was M=46 (SD=8.09) and the most often encountered age among participants was of 54. Ages were encompassed within a range of 33 years (Table 1 Appendix 1).
4.1.2. Descriptive statistics
Since the analysis entails comparing participants’ results on the PSS pre-intervention and post-intervention, it was decided that the most appropriate statistical test would be the paired samples t test. This test helps establish whether there is a statistically significant difference between scores obtained by the same subjects on a specific dependent variable (Cramer and Howitt, 2004; Heyman, 2011). Here, we considered whether there was a statistically significant difference between the scores obtained by the 58 participants on the PSS before the positive psychology coaching intervention as compared to the PPS scores after the intervention. In order to perform the desired inferential statistics analysis, it was important to confirm that all four assumptions of a paired samples t test were met (Heyman, 2011).
The first assumption is that the dependent variable is a continuous variable, interval or ratio variable (Heyman, 2011). Here the dependent variable is the PSS score which is indeed an interval variable (Minium, King & Bear, 1993). The second assumption is that the observations are independent (Heyman, 2011). In this study there were 58 independent observations, with none of the participants being measured twice on the same time reference (i.e. pre-intervention or post-intervention). The third assumption for correctly performing a paired sample t test is that the dependent variable is approximately normally distributed. This was checked using the histograms generated through SPSS for both Pre PPI and Post PPI.
Figure 3 (Appendix 1) indicates a normal distribution for the Pre PPI variable (M=27.36, SD=3.37). This is also confirmed by the low skewness value (.064) reported in Table 2 Appendix 1).
The Post PPI (Figure 4 appendix 1) variable also indicated and approximately normal distribution, with a skewness value of .292 (Table 2 Appendix 1).
The kurtosis values for the variables indicate that both Pre PPI (2.84) and Post PPI (2.41) have a leptokurtic distribution, with most of the values being distributed closely around the mean value (Beneviste, Goursat & Ruget, 1980).
The fourth and final assumption that needed to be checked prior to performing the paired samples t test was that the dependent variable did not contain any outliers (Heyman, 2011). In order to check for outliers, the Stem and Leaf plots were produced in SPSS for both Pre PPI (Figure 5 Appendix 1) and Post PPI (Figure 6 Appendix 1).
Five outliers were identified in the Pre PPI distribution. These were scores higher than or equal to 34 or lower than or equal to 18.
Two outliers were identified in the Post PPI distribution. These were scores higher than or equal to 31 or lower than or equal to 7.
In order to ensure that the paired samples t test was conducted correctly the outliers were eliminated through winsorization, namely by transforming the extreme values to eliminate the effect of the outliers (Turkey, 1962). Each extreme value was replaced by the following closest ranking value. For the Pre PPI variable scores for participants number 1 and 43 were replaced with the value 23 and scores from participants number 16, 34 and 36 were replaced with value 31. For the Post PPI variable, the score for participant number 1 was replaced with value 13 and the score for participant number 36 was replaced with value 25.
4.2. Inferential statistics
After ensuring that all assumptions of the paired sample t test were met SPSS was used to conduct the test. The paired sample t test was used to evaluate the null hypothesis that there is no change in participants perceived stress level before and after being exposed to executive coaching delivered through positive psychology interventions in a C-Class Executives group (N=58). As reported in Table 3 below, the mean value for the Pre PPI was M=27.33(SD=2.39) and the mean value for Post PPI was M=18.31(SD=.41).
Table 4 indicates a statistically significant (p=.001) positive correlation (.764) between the two dependent variables. This suggests that the participants who scored a lower than average PSS score pre-intervention also scored a lower than average PPS score post-intervention, and that participants who scored a higher than average PSS score pre-intervention also scored a higher than average PPS score post-intervention. The mean value of the Post PPI is lower than that of the Pre PPI (Table 3). This, together with the statistically significant positive correlation identified between the two scores (Table 4), proves that coaching organised according to positive psychology principles resulted in reducing the level of perceived stress of the C-Class executives exposed to the intervention.
The mean difference of Pre PPI and Post PPI was M=9.02 (SD=2.23), and the t=30.82 significant at p=.01 (Table 5). The results of the test indicated a statistically significant difference between the samples means, therefore providing sufficient evidence to reject the null hypothesis
5. Data Analysis
The results presented in the Findings chapter indicated that positive psychology interventions delivered within an executive coaching context contribute to changing C-Class Executives perceptions of stress. Additionally, the results demonstrated that all participants indicated a lower level of perceived stress post-intervention.
Descriptive statistics indicated that, as anticipated, C-Class Executives experience high levels of stress (IoD, 2017). Pre-PPI levels of stress recorded a mean value of M=27.36 (SD=3.36). This value suggests that most participants reported high levels of perceived stress (Cohen, 1994). Post-intervention reports had a mean value of M=18.31 (SD=3.67), therefore proving that the perceived stress levels decreased from low to moderate (Cohen, 1994).
As mentioned before, scholars (Cooper & Cartwright, 1997; Wright, 2007) have stated that coaching-based approached are among the most effective means of reducing workplace stress. As this study has tested the effect of such interventions, its positive results confirm those of previous researchers (Cooper & Cartwright, 1997; Wright, 2007). This suggests that the intervention whose effects were analysed here should be considered as a relevant alternative to programs and policies focused on sanctioning employees’ misbehaviour. Tarafdar et al. (2007) have argued that replacing punishment for negative behaviour with preventive measures that are proven to contribute to reduce employees’ negative behaviour is a more effective approach. Considering the results reported here executive coaching through positive psychology interventions, can be such a preventive measure.
This study focused on executive coaching as opposed to group coaching so as to follow the direction indicated by previous research (Grant et al., 2009; 2010; Gyllensten and Palmer, 2005; Jones et al., 2014; Ladegård, 2011; Theeboom et al., 2014) which suggested that the latter is more effective than the former. One of this study’s limitations is that it does not test for the difference between the effect of executive coaching as compared to that of group coaching, but the significant decrease in perceived stress levels from low to moderate, is a significantly powerful argument that executive coaching is indeed an effective approach.
Past studies (Bolier et al., 2013; Kaufman, 2006; Meyers et al., 2012; Seligman et al., 2005) have proven that PPIs contribute to reducing stress. The current study confirmed these results by testing the effect of PPI delivered through executive coaching. The reduced levels of perceived stress post-intervention confirmed that indeed PPIs are effective in reducing stress for C-Class Executives. Although the relevance of the results obtained in the current study cannot be contested, it is however important to note another limitation that could be addressed in future research.
Based on two assumptions derived from previous research (1- executive coaching is effective, 2- PPIs are effective) the current study explores the cumulated effect of executive coaching and PPI without analysing the extent to which each of these contribute to the final result. Future research could consider exploring this aspect.
The PPI used here relied on strength intervention and ‘savouring’. Individuals were coached to focus on their physical, social and mental resources and to recognise these as contributing factors to their success (Aspinwall et al., 2004). The strength intervention taught C-Class executives to acknowledge their potential for personal growth and to use their resources to further develop their strengths. Additionally, “savouring” was also introduced as a component of the PPI. Research participants were taught to appreciate the positive aspects of life (Bryant & Veroff 2007). They were guided to become mindful of their pleasant experiences, so as to be able to truly savour it. There were no items in the scales directly measuring the participants’ perceptions of strength interventions and savouring.
Despite this it can be inferred that the C-Class executives appreciated these as being beneficial and effective considering that both pre-intervention and post-intervention measures relied on the participants recollections. The perceived positive effects of the intervention on reducing stress, stand as proof that the C-Class executives appreciated the strength and savouring positive psychology interventions as being effective and beneficial.
5. 2. Study limitations
Most of the current study’s limitations are consequences of the limited resources (i.e. time) available for conducting the research. These are pointed out here rather as premises for future research, than as points of criticism for the current one.
As mentioned before the research does not compare the impact of executive coaching with that of group coaching, nor does it compare the effect of PPIs to that of alternative interventions on reducing the stress perceived by C-Class executives.
The results showed a significant reduction in perceived stress levels (from low to moderate) in the post-intervention condition as compared to the pre-intervention condition, however, there was no control group to observe whether the same effect would have been noted without the intervention, as a consequence of time passing. The systematic decrease (confirmed by the positive correlation observed) suggests that the effect was due to the intervention, however, solid empirical evidence, which could be obtained by introducing a control group in the research design would help prove this.
Another limitation is that for the pre-intervention condition the research relies on data collected based on participants’ recollections. Their perceptions of past experiences of stress may be altered and are therefore less reliable than data that would have really been collected at the time.
The most salient conclusion of the current research is that indeed executive coaching delivered as a positive psychology intervention is a measure worth considering when devising programs or policies meant to reduce employees’ levels of perceived work stress.
For the purpose of clarity, it is worth discussing the study’s conclusions in relation to its initially announced research questions.
The following research questions were considered:
(1) Are savouring and strength positive psychology interventions perceived as beneficial and effective by C-Class executives that had received the coaching?
The executive coaching intervention was designed to incorporate savouring and strength positive psychology approaches. There are three empirically based arguments to support a positive answer for this first research question: (1) there was a statistically significant positive correlation between the pre-intervention and post-intervention PSS scores, (2) there was a statistically significant difference between the men values of pre-intervention and post-intervention scores and (3) the mean value of the post intervention scores was lower than the mean value of the pre-intervention scores. Additionally, although collected with a standardised instrument, the PSS (Cohen, 1994) the scores are self-reported measures, therefore proving that it was the subjective perception of the participants which suggested that the savouring and strength positive psychology interventions are beneficial and effective. In conclusion, the C-Class executives who received executive coaching perceived the savouring and strength positive psychology interventions perceived as beneficial and effective.
(2) Did the interventions result in decrease in the instances (and/or severity) of stress in the C-Class executives’ life?
The pre-intervention PSS scores had a higher mean value (high stress) than the post intervention ones (moderate stress) and the values of the two scores were significantly correlated. This suggests that the intervention resulted in decreased levels of perceived stress.
6.2. Recommendations for practice
Considering the positive effects of the PPI used here it is recommended that future programmes and policies aiming to address stress related work programmes (i.e. absenteeism, low productivity etc.) to consider the option of using similar interventions. These could be used both to reduce the severity of such problems once observed, as well as to mitigate the risk of being confronted with such problems, therefore as preventive measures. The focus of the current research makes it evident that such interventions can be used with employees who carry significant responsibilities and who are consequently exposed to high levels of stress such as C-Class executives. There is no reason to believe that the effects would be less significant for employees handling fewer responsibilities.
6.3. Recommendations for future research
The limitations of the current research highlighted in the previous chapter serve as relevant starting points for recommending some possible directions for future research. As such future studies interested in the same subject could:
- explore the effect of PPI in a comparative approach between executive coaching and group coaching;
- explore whether the difference in PSS scores pre and post intervention is significantly different than those of a control group measured at similar time differences;
- explore the effect of the intervention in a more reliable context, namely measuring the participants’ perceived stress prior to the intervention and then again after it, rather than relying on their memory for data collection. This would enhance the accuracy of the measures and would help address potential criticism targeting this aspect.