Get a life

Every year 100,000 Britons seek the services of a life coach. Do you need one, too? Viv Groskop doub

"Don't jump on the bandwagon." This is the advice that life-coach guru Fiona Harrold has been giving to the hundreds of former counsellors and psychotherapists who have come knocking on her door, hoping to rebrand themselves as life coaches. "I refuse them," she declares. "I say, 'You're a psychologist and that's a great thing.' I see so many book jackets now where five years ago the authors called themselves a psychologist and now they are a coach. It makes me laugh."

Life coaching is the biggest growth area in the self-help world. As dysfunctional coaching- convert Warren crowed recently in This Life Plus Ten, the industry is worth an estimated £50m a year and rising. Life coaching is "where it's at".

The concept is largely accredited to Thomas J Leonard, who founded a training centre called Coach U in Arizona in 1992. Two years later he set up the International Coach Federation and the idea went global. The London-based Coaching Academy, the UK's biggest coaching school, has trained 10,000 new coaches over the past seven years, and the Association for Coaching, also based in London, aims to pull in 2,000 members by the end of the year.

Becoming a coach or, as some prefer to be known an "agent of change" is, in fact, a doddle. The industry is unregulated and no genuine qualification is needed, so anyone can decide to become a life coach, quite literally, overnight. And the incentive to do so is there. "Agents" can charge anything from £30 an hour to thousands of pounds a day. "Of course, some people will come to it thinking that it is an easy way to make money," says Harrold, whose own book on the subject, Be Your Own Life Coach, has sold millions of copies.

One estimate puts the number of life coaches currently practising in the UK at between 80,000 and 100,000. Oddly enough, another figure is bandied about, too: that 100,000 Britons used a life coach in 2005. This works out as one life coach per client, which sounds about right. Many online testimonials reveal that many only decide to become coaches after having been coached themselves. But none of these statistics are official. Because there is no official life coaching body, the numbers are impossible to verify.

January is life coaching's busiest time of the year, with thousands of recruits signing up for help with their New Year resolutions. But the executive and corporate sector is still the most lucrative. Specialised coaches offering mentoring services to top-level execs can earn as much as £10,000 a day. Last year, it was reported that Patricia Hewitt and other cabinet ministers use £250-an-hour life coaches to "cope with the pressures of government". No 10, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport and the Treasury have all used coaches, or "critical friends" as they preferred to be known in this particular case.

"What you realise talking to senior business people and executives is that everybody has them but no one wants to talk about it," says one high-profile London-based businesswoman, who keeps in touch with her American coach by phone. "I've had a number of lunches where I've mentioned it. People lower their voice and admit they have one, too."

A small group of charismatic life-coach gurus including Harrold, now practically a household name thanks to her book and appearances on Channel 4's Faking It, are skilled at inspiring others. She started out as a "self-esteem consultant" more than 20 years ago. This group would do what they do whatever it was called and regardless of whether it was trendy and there was money to be made from it. But then there are all the rest. "Coaching is unregulated so you are at the mercy of whether it's crap or not," says the businesswoman. "A lot of it relies on you using y0ur own skills and judgement."

Why do they do it?

Which begs the question: why do people need to visit a life coach? According to the "experts", people who need coaches are those who are not satisfied with the status quo or who want to feel differently about their future. They might be seeking clarity and resolution, evaluating their career options or facing difficult choices. Almost all will have some sort of anxieties or relationship concerns. Most will want to gain deeper self-understanding and acceptance. So, that's pretty much everyone, in one way or another.

Getting a helping hand with public speaking to boost your chances of climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder is one thing. But experts in psychology are concerned that vulnerable people are not receiving the treatment they need. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes that coaching can never be effective unless coaches train in some form of therapy. "Life coaching uses a model that is contradictory to most established psychotherapies. It is goal-focused not client-centred. It addresses symptoms rather than causes." This creates not only a risk for the patient but a public risk as well. "After all," he argues, "there is the issue of personality disorder. How on earth are you going to recognise one if you don't know what it is?" Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, has also spoken out against life coaching as intrusive and a waste of money, observing that: "There's a growing idea that human beings lack the competence and resources to cope with everyday life."

All this won't stop it from growing, however, says Hodson. "As a society we are now ready to address the question of our alienation but we don't really want the answers to hurt. It's like wanting to do your bit for climate change but keeping the 4 x 4." He adds the killer blow: "If the power of positive thinking could solve all our problems we wouldn't have any."

Harrold dismisses this out of hand. "People want results and why shouldn't they be given the tools to get them?" she says. "People don't want navel-gazing. They want to be able to walk into the office tomorrow and get a promotion."

Life coaching explained

So what is it?

"A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee." Anthony Grant, University of Sydney, 2000.

How is this different from traditional therapy?

Life coaching looks to find solutions to the problems rather than to solve the causes. Coaches encourage their clients to use "cognitive techniques" - aka, thinking - to unlock the key to success.

What qualifications do life coaches have to have?

None. Anyone can become a life coach. But many reassuringly cite their years of experience in "human potential".

Who needs a life coach?

According to the experts themselves, just about anyone who is cheesed off with any part of their life.

With no professional body to regulate, how do you know which coach to choose?

London-based life coach Sally Ann Law, one of the first coaches listed on Google, has sound advice. "Absorb all the information available to you," she says on her website, "then listen to your heart and your head about whether you think this person appears credible and empathetic." So as long as decision-making isn't your problem, you should be OK.

How can I find out more about life coaching?

Another pearl from Law. Try an internet search, she suggests. "Enter 'life coach' and you'll be inundated with options."

How much does it cost to become a life coach myself?

Anywhere between £700 and £3,000

How much does a life coach earn?

Well, logic suggests success. Top earnings are thought to be £10k a day.

Sohani Crockett

Show Hide image

Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue