Confidence on the couch

How do you react when your boss says: “Can I have a word with you?” If you automatically assume you’re in trouble, or even facing the sack, you could be among those who would benefit from a form of psychotherapy that is gaining ground in the workplace.

Although not all HR departments are aware of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), in occupational health it is gaining acceptance as a way to avoid costly absence due to mental health problems, and to promote positive thinking and effective working.

CBT could be the most effective tool yet to tackle the anxiety and stress that results in more than 13 million days lost at a cost to UK employers of around £3.7bn a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive. A study in 2005 by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation supports this, recommending CBT for use in the workplace for people with mental problems.

Recognising the value of CBT is especially relevant with the upcoming changes to the Disability Discrimination Act in December, which will bring employees who do not have a clinically recognised mental health condition under the auspices of the legislation.

However, HR could be exacerbating, rather than improving, mental health problems in the workplace. CBT experts say that the solutions HR often comes up with, such as changing an individual’s job, do not address the cause of the problem, which is often due to the individual, rather than the work environment.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is an umbrella term, but the underlying approach is to identify the negative patterns of thinking that affect how we react to information and events and can, over time, lead to mental health problems or under-performance.

Dr Frank Bond, senior lecturer in the psychology department at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, has been carrying out research into the effectiveness of CBT at work since 1998. He has seen positive results from surveys carried out in six organisations including two London boroughs, a central government office and a retail organisation.

He is convinced that CBT isn’t just useful for dealing with extreme psychological distress, but can help most employees to work more effectively, and stop wasting energy on negative assumptions and thought patterns.

“If the boss says: ‘I want to see you’, and I immediately assume she is angry with me, or I am going to be sacked, I am jumping to a conclusion,” he says. “We all tend to filter ambiguous information in a certain way. What this leads to is nervousness and avoidant behaviour. CBT teaches people to respond differently to their thoughts and feelings.”

Group benefits

The problem with nervous and avoidant behaviour at work – as well as making the workplace a more stressful, tense environment – is that it can stop staff from learning new skills, or carrying out their work to the best of their ability. The good news is that CBT is effective in groups, so one-to-one sessions are not necessary.

Goldsmith’s sessions involved eight to 12 participants working with one therapist. Sessions are focused and short-term. The time spent on CBT in Bond’s research was limited: three interventions, three times, in three months. The goal was to decrease mental distress and improve job motivation. But some performance indicators improved as well. For instance, one of the organisations was a media company, where innovation was highly valued. Not only did the psychological wellbeing of staff improve – levels of creativity rose as well.

Gladeana McMahon, co-director of the Centre for Stress Management and Centre for Coaching, says while CBT in its pure form may have much to offer in terms of promoting mental health in the workplace, it is already widely used in a watered-down form in executive coaching and talent management.

“It’s important that people realise the transferability of CBT: it is used in severe clinical cases, but it also goes right across the board and can be used to encourage change in all sorts of individuals,” she says.

The potential for CBT in the workplace is immense, adds McMahon, and HR and OH staff alike would do well to find out more about how it works.

Further information

To find out more about CBT and its applications in the workplace, go to,, or contact Dr Frank Bond at, e-mail

The British Occupational Health Research Foundation study supporting CBT is called Workplace Interventions for People with Common Mental Health Problems, by L Seymour and B Grove, (2005). A summary can be found at

This month in Occupational Health

Misunderstandings between occupational health advisers and HR managers about the confidentiality of health data can lead to conflict.

Personnel Today’s sister publication, Occupational Health, is a monthly magazine dedicated to keeping you on top of occupational health issues. To subscribe, go to, or call 01444 445566. Out on 3 February.

Comments are closed.