Free Workplace Counselling is a Profitable Duty of Care

Providing free and confidential workplace counselling interventions has proven to reduce sickness absence rates in organisations by as much as fifty per cent…

By Shuchita Dua Dullu

There seems to be a correlation between the increase in competitive job markets and the pressures to maintain a work-life balance and a rise in negative mental health. Work-related issues such as excessive workload, stress, bullying, production challenges and unhealthy relationships with colleagues all directly impact our professional and personal lives.

Personal problems, life-crisis situations, experiences such as bereavement and loss, relationship and family difficulties, substance abuse and stresses at home can further compound mental health issues.

The provision of workplace counselling has steadily expanded over the past 20 years, with more than 75 per cent of medium and large organisations in Britain and North America making counselling available to their staff (Carroll & Walton, 1999; Oher, 1999). This suggests that to accelerate the rehabilitation of an emotionally or mentally absent employee, counselling support plays a crucial role.

Workplace counselling is defined as the provision of brief, relationship-focused psychological therapy for employees of an organisation, paid for by the employer.  It is a systematic, as well as an individual, intervention plan that is short term in nature and provides an independent, specialist resource for people working across disciplines.

Factors such as the size of the organisation and the funds available, dictate how counselling is provided within an organisation.  While some organisations pay for counselling by recruiting a workplace counsellor either full time or part time, or on an ad hoc basis, depending on the size of the workforce, other companies choose to invest in an employee assistance programme (EAP). An EAP is a standalone package that include counselling support provision, often from a nationwide pool of vetted affiliate counsellors.

Workplace counselling appears to work best in a face-to-face context, where the employee meets and is treated at the professional premises of the counsellor. However, for some people, a telephone option can provide a more immediate opportunity, as well as a measure of anonymity. Some counsellors are embracing new technologies and are offering email, instant messaging and online counselling. A support that enables a larger outreach by providing help to employees in more remote settings, or those who travel frequently as part of their job.

A distinctive strength of workplace counselling is that an employee is seen by a counselling specialist who is sensitised to the combination of personal and work pressures that the person may present. They are mindful of the context in which the employees work and have a crucial understanding of the environment to which the employees will be returning.

Workplace counsellors have a specialist viewpoint and skillset, as they essentially handle two clients simultaneously, namely the employee in front of them and the organisation, as a peripheral client. Therefore introducing an employee to counselling in a confidential, safe, non-judgemental and empathetic environment not only helps the individual employee, it also saves the organisation money in the long run.

A review of research into the outcomes of workplace counselling, (McLeod, 2001) identified 34 studies, where employees presented to counselling with high levels of psychological symptoms. According to the results, those who received counselling were highly satisfied, and believed it had helped them resolve their problem. Clinically significant improvement in levels of anxiety and depression were reported in 60-75 per cent of clients. Counselling was also associated with reduction in sickness absence and improvement in other organisational outcomes such as more positive work attitudes, fewer accidents and enhanced work performance.

Results of various other studies carried out in the area of Effectiveness of workplace counselling, indicate that workplace counselling contributes to significant improvements on attitude-to-work factors such as opportunity for control, skill use, job demand, clarity, feeling valued, interpersonal contact, competence, work spill-over, adequacy of pay and job satisfaction.

From an employer’s perspective, workplace counselling offers the employer a potential for savings by reducing sickness absence. It also takes pressure off managers through the availability of a constructive means of dealing with difficult staff or situations, and contributes to a reputation as a caring employer.

Workplace counselling is also often viewed by employers as an insurance policy against the threat of compensation claims made by employees exposed to work-related stress.

A report Counselling in the Workplace: The Facts, commissioned and published in 2001 by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, claimed that after counselling, work-related symptoms returned to normal in more than half of all clients and sickness absence was reduced by over 25 per cent. Another systematic study by McLeod in the year 2010 showed that workplace counselling interventions have been found to reduce sickness absence rates in organisations by as much as 50 per cent. Thus, demonstrating the cost-effective nature of counselling, and the positive impact it can have on organisational productivity.

Studies focused on individual organisations have helped further reinforce the positive financial message. An evaluation by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1990 found that the introduction of a counselling service at the Post Office saved it £102,000 over a six-month period.

Most workplace counselling psychologists commonly follow an integrative approach to therapy. That means that while they are trained in a core therapeutic approach such as person- centred, gestalt, CBT or Transactional Analysis, to name a few, they normally build other disciplines into their therapeutic process, to suit the needs of the employee seeking support.

However the choice of the approach used by the counsellor usually matters less and what actually determines maximum success is the quality of the counsellor-client relationship, which is characterised by high levels of trust and openness.

In spite of the numerous proven benefits, the success of workplace counselling is largely dependent on the attitudes and perceptions of both the employees and the employers about the importance of counselling process.

There is a great deal of sensitivity about confidentiality and some employees report fearing that seeking help from a workplace counsellor may lead to a negative appraisal by the employers, thereby affecting their progression.

Employers need to adopt a positive approach towards providing counselling assistance and should take it upon themselves to spread awareness about the benefits of availing counselling support. An assurance that seeking help from a workplace counsellor is not likely to have a negative impact on the assessment or evaluation of an employee or his/her work performance, will go a long way in changing the attitudes and perceptions of employees towards seeking help at work.

Despite these methodological weaknesses, the general picture that emerges is that workplace counselling is appreciated by those who have availed it, and appears to have a positive impact on objective measures of distress and on self-reported measures of symptomatology.

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