The Power of Peer-to-Peer Coaching by Stefano Zucca

In the run up to my postdoc, I was aware that studies into PhD students’ mental health were appearing frequently, but I felt that not enough was being done to promote the discussion in academia. This pushed me to start researching the topic myself, collecting different information, and led me to present on “The PhD students’ mental health crisis” to my institute.  It was the reception to this talk that made me realise how much researchers seek a place where they can share and discuss daily common issues they are facing in academia – my journey as a mental health advocate had begun.

Supported by University College London (UCL), I became a Mental Health First Aider, taking part in a course I strongly encourage everyone to attend: it opens your mind, changes your perspective and it fights the stigma associated with mental health. It should be a program run at all universities.  Meanwhile, I got in touch with a group at Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University who successfully promoted Peer Coaching Groups in their institute to help researchers struggling with stress management on the workplace. I had the opportunity to chat with the amazing organisers and I was fascinated by the powerful tool coaching groups represents for researchers. So, I thought it would be useful to promote a similar scheme in my institute, following their guidelines and together with the extremely supportive help from the UCL Wellbeing Team. The remainder of this blog will cover my experience setting up a peer coaching scheme and lessons learned.

What is Coaching?

Coaching is a process that aims to unlock a person’s potential to maximise their performance, helping them to learn rather than teaching them. It focuses on one person’s specific skills and goals, looking at the “here and now” rather than on the distant past or future.

The coaching process is based on a simple concept: each person has all the answers and skills to deal with their issue/reaching their success. The coach’s role is to develop coachee’s resourcefulness, not giving advice but helping find their own best solution. The coach works as a partner and the goals are about sustainable change.

During each coaching session, the focus is on the person and the coach has the role to help define a specific aim and to develop concrete and realistic strategies for achieving it. There is a clear difference between coaching and mentoring: a mentor guides a person using advice and sharing personal experiences, whilst a coach does not give advice but helps the person to find their own best solution for the problem. This is really powerful, as on an institutional level it is often hard to create whole university approaches to mental health. This definitely applies to the research environment – research is an extremely multicultural environment, filled with people with different histories and scientific backgrounds. People reach similar research positions with completely different career paths and experiences. In a such diverse context, it is often hard to find a unique strategy for different people, even if they share a common concern. The strength of coaching is to focus on the person and find the best strategy to suit their individual needs.

What is a Peer Coaching Group?

Members of the group are the mainstay of any peer coaching group.  In a university context, this may include research assistants, technicians, PhD students and postdocs (and many others): each of these figures represents the core of the group. The group aims to support researchers to find their own strategy for stressful situations they are facing. It differs from a standard coaching group as researchers learn basic coaching skills from professional coaches, and then they later manage the group by themselves, independently.

To start a group, the first step is to gather a small number of people (minimum of 3-4) who want to commit to it. It is fundamental to have a stable group, as the main goal is to create a safe and comfortable environment for everyone where people feel free to speak. Researchers are introduced and briefly trained by professionals to apply two common techniques: active listening and the GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model. Here, people receive basic knowledge about coaching and coaching skills, and they aim to improve them with practice during future coaching sessions. Once the group is established and trained, people must create and agree on a set of rules that everyone in the group should remember during each session. At this stage, everything is ready to start. It is up to the group to decide the time, the frequency, the scheme and the duration of each coaching session.

Peer Coaching Group during COVID-19: My Personal Experience

Together with the support of the UCL Wellbeing Team, we decided to run a trial to understand if a mental health-orientated Peer Coaching Group scheme suits researchers’ needs at UCL. We started the first pilot group in my department and gathered eight researchers (PhD students, postdocs and lab managers) to attend the training. We trained in February 2020 and we managed to run the first proper Peer Coaching Session the week before the lockdown due to COVID-19. I have to say it was an incredible experience, at least from my side. I was surprised and fascinated by the ability of people to apply, to the best of their ability, the techniques we learnt a few days before during the training. Everyone was extremely supportive, especially when they recognised that some of the issues were quite common and shared. With just a short training experience, we managed to build action plans for most of the people in the group to cope with their problems and achieve their goals.

The UCL peer coaching group logo

As the COVID-19 situation escalated, we decided to try to continue the coaching group during the lockdown, as we thought it could be an especially useful tool for such a challenging time. We have been running online coaching sessions once every two weeks and, from my point of view, it has been an incredible tool to manage the stress arising from the need to work from home and self-isolate. In every session, we decide which scheme to follow, namely if we prefer to work in small groups (2-3 people), if we want to coach a single person as a group, or if we want to do exercises to improve our coaching skills. So far, we have mainly worked in small groups and, at the end of each session, we collect feedback to keep improving the way we run the group.

During the sessions, it became apparent that many of us were facing (and struggling with) similar issues (e.g., impostor syndrome, workload management, focus while working from home).  Therefore, we sometimes felt it was useful to let everyone share their own experience on a common concern.

We also discussed the possibility of introducing a mentoring element to the sessions: however, we realised it was enough to share our experiences and leave each person to decide whether they wanted to implement the suggested strategy. In this way, we increased the number of options the person could choose, without giving any advice.

A powerful element of coaching is the concrete and realistic plan we try to have for each issue at the end of the session. Coaching groups are not just places where people share experiences, but they aim to find a realistic plan to achieve one’s goal. Peer Coaching Groups are self-sustained groups, where researchers help each other to achieve their goals (approaching deadlines, efficient supervision, coping with self-isolation) and improve their life and career in academia.

A key aspect of this experience is the importance of learning how to listen properly. Listening carefully not only helps you understand what a person is going through, but it also helps yourself, as you may realise you are not the only one facing that problem. This is one of the most common comments I’ve received so far during my experience dealing with mental health issues in academia: there is still a huge stigma around it, and people don’t feel free to share what they are going through.

When you start sharing examples of common situations (e.g., impostor syndrome, not feeling valued, struggling with publishing pressure, sense of failing, comparing yourself to others…) you normalise it, and people feel less lonely and often become more motivated in coping with stress.

This is what I think makes the Peer Coaching Groups effective: you speak with people that are going or went through a similar path, and they are able to understand your needs and better help you to find a realistic solution to be successful in your work, and this usually helps to reduce stress.

Improving Mental Health in Academia through Coaching

Overall, I believe that universities and research institutions should invest more time to better understand how current research culture affects people’s mental health in academia. Although support services are in place in many universities, they seem to be most effective for undergraduate students rather than for PhD and postdocs. It is fundamental to understand the factors that affect academics and promote initiatives to effectively improve well-being. Each university must set frequent discussion seminars on mental health: this is because I believe that sharing and chatting with others is one of the most useful ways to support others and help them realise they are not alone. One of the ways that universities can help their researchers is by implementing peer coaching sessions, like the one run at UCL to help work towards an improved research culture. It is important to note that universities also do not have to set up their own coaching service, but can collaborate with independent coaches to deliver content and give students access to one-on-one coaching – like “The Clever Neuron” – who work with scientists to coach them to deal with the stresses and strains of academia.

I believe that improving research culture will not just affect people’s well-being but it will significantly boost research quality. Having trained academics not further pursuing a research career because of mental health problems should be a major concern for any research policy.

Stefano Zucca

Stefano Zucca is a neuroscientist interested in understanding how our brain integrates sensory information from the outside world to guide our instinctive responses. He obtained his PhD in Neuroscience and Brain Technologies in Italy, at the Italian Institute of Technology. Three years ago, he moved to UK to start a postdoc at University College London in the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience (IBN). Recently, he has been involved in rising awareness and discussion about Mental Health in academia and now is promoting Peer Coaching Groups at UCL to support and improve researchers’ mental health.