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Positive Health Coaching: Christian van Nieuwerburgh explores the future of coaching in healthcare

Coaching researcher and academic Christian van Nieuwerburgh shares insights from a new center researching the interplay between coaching, healthcare, and the future of well-being.

Scanning the next horizon in coaching practice — coaches as part of the healthcare team

Wisdom Weaver Christian van Nieuwerburgh has spent much of his career as an ambassador for the coaching profession. His research contributed to new understandings of cross-cultural coaching, coaching in the public sector, and coaching in education. His latest endeavor focuses on the transformative potential of coaching within the healthcare sector, aiming to support care providers, patients, and communities to achieve sustainable well-being.

At the Royal College for Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), Christian is part of the new interdisciplinary team at the Centre for Positive Health Sciences. Combining research in positive psychology and lifestyle medicine, the team aims to address the growing chronic disease crisis and shift healthcare interventions toward preventative health and well-being. Coaching, Christian explains, has an incredible potential in this context to empower behavior change and support long-term well-being.

Through the center, Christian is researching the application of coaching in healthcare contexts, integrating positive psychology, coaching, and health education to support client growth. In 2023, the center published its first book, Positive Health, which includes positive psychology research and coaching tools to support well-being. As a sign of the program’s success, Christian and his colleagues are now teaching healthcare professionals and coaches to apply these learnings through a master’s in Positive Health Coaching.

What is a Positive Health Coach?

Christian describes the new graduate program as a hands-on initiative grounded in the science of well-being. As a program requirement, graduate students must be current or former health professionals with experience working in a clinical or community health practice. Through the program, the health professionals learn skills in lifestyle medicine, coaching, and applied positive psychology that inform strategies to empower patient health and well-being.   

“At RCSI, our center has a very sharp focus on the interplay between coaching psychology, positive psychology, and lifestyle medicine. Our focus is on the future of well-being, and we are coming at this with curiosity and openness, but a strong belief that coaching has a part to play in the future of how we engage with health professionals and well-being in general.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Read the interview below to learn more about coaching for well-being and new modalities in Positive Health Coaching:

Christian van Nieuwerburgh introduces Positive Health Coaching and his hopes for the future of health and wellness coaching

What are the key factors driving the future of well-being?

“The pandemic helped us to recognize the importance of protecting and investing in the well-being of our people. Second, the field of coaching has embraced health and well-being. The United States has a National Board for Health and Well-being Coaches, and there is much more activity around coaching for health and well-being in the United Kingdom. During the pandemic, there was much questioning within the coaching profession: What is our role? Coaches stepped forward to support health professionals within the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, providing pro bono coaching to health professionals. This shift started out of need and necessity, but now there is an increased awareness of the potential of coaching within health settings.
Now, well-being has become this kind of amorphous, ambiguous term. Perhaps that is a good thing because we need to be inclusive in what we mean when we talk about well-being. We also need to recognize that so many practitioners, professional bodies, and academic institutions have something to say about well-being in its broadest sense. I am seeing the trends of people saying, ‘Look, no one discipline is going to come up with an answer to how we can enhance the well-being of individuals, communities, etc.’ So, despite everything that’s going on, I’m optimistic that working together will develop more sustainable ideas about supporting the well-being of individuals and communities.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

How do you see coaches taking on new roles in health settings?

“I recently visited San Francisco for a North American Primary Care Research Group conference, and there was a lot of interest in how coaching and mentoring might be supportive. Within our center, we also have a partnership with the Center for Well-being Science at the University of Melbourne, which also has a strong interest in coaching. So, I’m seeing more research into what we call ‘well-being science.’

At our center, we talk about the importance of considering well-being as bio-psycho-social. We are also very keen on asking, ‘How do we involve the community in both individual well-being and community well-being or a community’s attitude to well-being?’ And we’re thinking about cultural contexts and the environment. How conducive are these environments? All of this thinking has gone into our new intervention, which is called Positive Health Coaching.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

What other disruptions do you see shaping the future of well-being?

“We have so much more work to do around people’s basic needs, providing the very minimum that human beings need to experience any type of well-being. Sometimes, the pursuit of happiness distracts us. I would love to see a shift toward ‘well-being’ over ‘happiness’.

The other major disruption is AI’s huge potential and risks. In our context around the relationship between coaching, health, and well-being, I’m favoring AI-assisted coaching. At our center, we’ve been doing some promising research on AI-assisted coaching, which means there’s still a human coach interacting with patients or clients. The AI is being used to provide information to clients, and the coach. It means that one human coach can support a greater number of clients within a community. So, I think AI will be bringing serious, and potentially positive, disruption to everything it is that we’re talking about.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

What differentiates Positive Health Coaching from other coaching approaches?

“At the center, we are building off research in positive psychology and well-being science. The coaching is non-prescriptive, but strategic health-related information is shared during our Positive Health Coaching conversations. Positive Health Coaching is dialogic, borrowing a phrase used by Dr. Jim Knight in the United States. It is still not prescriptive. And the other difference about Positive Health Coaching is that health and well-being are at its core. That is the central purpose. We are focusing on health behavior by supporting people who want to make a health-related change. And through those health behavior changes, coaching is having a positive impact on their well-being as well. So that’s why we see this as an intervention designed simultaneously to focus on health and well-being improvement.

The second is we are designing a master’s in workplace well-being. And that will look at more broadly positive organizational scholarship and systemic thinking. We are really thinking about the emerging role of the Chief Well-being Officer or Chief Happiness Officer or the person within the human resources team who has responsibility for well-being; what would they need to know? Coaching at that individual level is empowering, and it is needed. It really supports people to take responsibility for their well-being. At the same time, we need that work at the organizational or societal level that creates environments conducive to people pursuing or investing in their well-being. So that is what we are doing as a center.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

What coaching approaches or methods do you foresee emerging or becoming more prominent to address well-being challenges?

“The work we are doing right now is interested in how coaching be used with patients or clients who have decided to make a health-related behavior change. An emerging issue is the health and well-being of our health professionals. There is a lot of discussion around burnout, people leaving the profession, and the sector’s sustainability. So, the next big challenge is answering the question: ‘To what extent does coaching have a role to play between health professionals or for the health professionals themselves?’ So I think the next big question is: ‘How can health professionals benefit from being coached, or using coaching, or thinking about this idea of coaching cultures within health contexts?’ Then there is the question of who pays for it. And that is a serious thing because if it can be funded through insurance or existing health arrangements, it can reach more people. So, if we can show that Positive Health Coaching can help people adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors, sustain behavior change, and improve their overall well-being in a preventative way, we can make a case for additional funding.

We recognize that what we are doing now in our health contexts is not sustainable, and we have even greater challenges ahead. Coaches are keen to be involved in those conversations with colleagues in the health context who are looking at creative, innovative ways of addressing some of the challenges.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

What are your aspirations for coaches in the future of well-being?

“Many of us have to justify the importance of looking after people’s well-being because of productivity or cost or because we do not want them burning out. I would love for us to reach a point where well-being is an end in itself and acknowledge that well-being may be a primary focus in our organizations, institutions, and societies. Coaching has a role to play in that.

There is already a well-being crisis, but now is a better time for us to think creatively than it will be ten years from now. I hope that we can start to engage with these questions now and connect with global organizations like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and others who are interested in the well-being of people all across the planet. The need for connection and collaboration is so clear in what we do. If we can start to measure well-being globally and collaborate, I hope well-being becomes a top agenda item in the next ten years.

Alongside conversations about artificial intelligence, we really need to think about human well-being and protecting what is best about what it is to be human. For me, human beings are at their best when they are experiencing well-being.

Finally, organizations like ICF have a huge part to play in this, as do universities. We need to collaborate to provide the evidence and case studies to policymakers to say that there is some research-informed support for some of the interventions we’re discussing. And in coming together, how do we give everyone a voice?”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

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