Continuing our series on professions allied to occupational health, Rick Hughes, lead adviser for workplace at the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, explains more about the counselling profession and the important role that it can play within an organisation.
Workplace counselling is an employee support intervention that is usually short term in nature and provides an independent, specialist resource for people working across all sectors and in all working environments. Giving all employees access to a free, confidential, workplace counselling service can potentially be viewed as part of an employer’s duty of care.
Responsibilities and skills
The counselling process is about providing a sounding board for an employee, giving them a safe place to talk about issues that trouble them, and allowing counsellors to help them find their own solutions to problems or develop better ways to manage issues. It is not about giving advice, but about providing a non-judgmental, empathic and accessible means to allow an employee to find a way forward.
Workplace counsellors have a specialist viewpoint and skillset, as they essentially have two clients – the employee in front of them and the organisation, as a peripheral client. Workplace counsellors 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.
As workplace counselling is short term (up to eight one-hour sessions), practitioners are commonly “integrative”, meaning they have trained in a core therapeutic approach and built other disciplines into this. Counsellors may be person-centred, or have skills in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), transitional analysis, gestalt therapy, solution-focused therapy, or one of several other disciplines. The choice of the approach used by the counsellor usually matters less than the quality of the counsellor-client relationship, with trust and openness helping to maximise success.
Employers and clients
Workplace counsellors offer support to people in organisations across all sectors, locations and sizes. While counselling is available on the NHS, the long waiting times, lack of specialist insight and inflexibility of appointment times and locations make workplace counselling a more attractive option to many employers. 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). EAPs are standalone packages that include counselling support provision, often from a nationwide pool of vetted affiliate counsellors.
Several factors, primarily the size of the organisation and the funds available, dictate how counselling is provided within an organisation. More important than the type of service used is the understanding that counselling must be confidential and voluntary, so it should not be used as a conditional requirement or as part of a disciplinary process.
Organisations sometimes think that the counselling provision they are paying for should only be used to address issues directly relating to the employee’s work life. While work-related issues, including stress, overwork, bullying and difficult colleagues, can of course directly impact an employee’s performance, personal issues can have a similar negative impact.
We all experience life-crisis issues at different stages in our lives. Experiences such as bereavement and loss, relationship and family difficulties, substance misuse (including alcohol issues) and stresses at home can all preoccupy someone’s thinking and distract them from work. In certain safety-sensitive industries this can also be a major risk.
Workplace counselling often helps employees who are absent from work, and there is evidence that counselling support can accelerate the rehabilitation of an absent employee, saving the organisation money in the long run. In short, everyone who works in an organisation is a potential client.
Counsellors in collaboration
Workplace counsellors now enjoy a long-established relationship with allied professionals, often working closely with HR representatives, trade unions, health and safety practitioners, and those working in the areas of people management and people development.
Typically, counsellors working in organisations are employed under the umbrella of OH. Indeed, many counselling referrals come from OH professionals, which enables the employee to get a fast response to help them manage their issues.
As well as benefiting the employee, OH staff with access to a counselling resource appreciate the opportunity to refer employees to a specialist service, freeing up more time for them to devote to other areas.
Increasingly, many OH and HR practitioners are choosing to learn counselling skills. This can help them better engage with employees with problems, develop skills in empathy, demonstrate a more open and transparent manner, and build a closer trusting relationship with the staff member.
However, it is important to remember that receiving introductory counselling training does not equip someone with sufficient knowledge to provide an employee with full counselling. A person with some counselling skills may think they can support or counsel a depressed employee, but what if that employee goes on to reveal a history of childhood sexual abuse, alcohol dependency, or discloses that they are considering suicide?
The greatest advantage of staff having workplace counselling skills is that they can help to better identify when it is time to refer an employee to a specialist workplace counsellor, and can provide the crucial “bridge” into such a referral. This continuity contribution often encourages those with counselling skills to take the next step and train to be a counsellor by going on a diploma course, registered by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP).
Managers have found counselling skills training to be hugely helpful in terms of how they manage people. Poor people management skills are often cited in dysfunctional workplace relationships. While those in HR and OH often already have a skillset that enables then to understand, connect and engage with people, managers are often recruited to their roles because of the functional job capabilities, rather than because they are good at managing people.
There is a growing evidence base for the efficacy of counselling generally, and, within the profession, workplace counselling has been particularly well researched.
A 2010 systematic study by McLeod of the research evidence, showed that workplace counselling interventions have been found to reduce sickness absence rates in organisations by as much as 50%. This fact alone demonstrates the cost-effective nature of counselling, and the positive impact it can have on an organisation’s productivity.
Studies focused on individual organisations have further reinforced this 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.
A 2012 Cambridge University study showed clearly that the effect of time-limited counselling (an average of seven sessions) on distressed clients is positive. Evidence drawn from a sizeable treatment group suggested that such counselling leads to an increased sense of wellbeing. Another study found that workplace counselling contributed to “significant improvements on most attitude-to-work factors: opportunity for control, skill use, job demand, clarity, feeling valued, interpersonal contact, competence, work spill-over, adequacy of pay and job satisfaction”. To put it another way, counselling leads to happier, more positive and secure employees.
Earlier this year, a UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) study reviewed the outcome of more than 28,000 EAP counselling interventions. The findings indicate the success of EAPs when it comes to engaging with clients and matching client problems with relevant and appropriate counsellors, as well as offering speedy interventions that minimise the time employees are required to wait for professional support.
A key finding from the above study is that 70% of the EAP clients were demonstrably shown to recover or improve following their counselling intervention. In terms of service, EAPs were shown to offer shorter waiting times for treatment than services available on the NHS, and clients were vastly more likely to see the counselling treatment through to completion.
Political and regulatory factors
The Government has conducted several consultations on the issue of absence and made clear recommendations for counselling to be offered by organisations for their employees, although this has yet to be made a legal requirement. However, employment legislation requires organisations to provide a safe working environment and exhibit a duty of care, so it makes financial and common sense to provide access to a counselling service.
Workplace counsellors should have a sound counselling diploma as a prerequisite, but how they gain their experience of working in organisations can be varied. Many come from OH and HR roles, retrain and are then able to utilise their understanding of how organisations function to inform ways to offer and deliver counselling.
Workplace counsellors should be members of a professional association, such as the BACP. The BACP’s register has been accredited by the Professional Standards Authority, which means that it meets high standards in respect of governance, standard setting, education and training, management, complaints and information. In addition, BACP members are bound by the association’s highly regarded ethical framework for good practice in counselling and psychotherapy and are subject to its professional conduct procedure.
Many BACP members are also accredited. These members have additional areas of expertise, skills and knowledge, on top of their original training. In order to retain their accredited status they are required to keep up to date with training and continuing professional development, and as such they are widely recognised as the “gold standard” within the profession.
Workplace counselling will always remain an important resource for organisations. It offers employees a safe, confidential place to talk about anything that may be confusing, painful or uncomfortable, and allows them to talk with someone who is trained to listen attentively and to help them improve the situation. It is an invaluable resource for managers, who can refer employees to counselling when they feel unable to help with a more complex or personal problem that an employee is facing.
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 offer email, instant messaging and online counselling. This can help employees in more remote settings, or those who travel frequently as part of their job.
EAPs provided by large OH or healthcare providers have dominated recent delivery of counselling provision, but there has also been a significant increase in local NHS trust counselling services offering their services to other organisations (particularly in the public sector) in their locality. Among small businesses, there is continuing demand for ad hoc counsellors, to whom an employee can be referred as and when the need arises.
The new Fit for Work Service, to be launched by the Government later this year, has the potential to enable organisations to better utilise counselling resources, where this is highlighted by the service.
CBT has also been a popular therapeutic tool, and there is evidence that many other approaches can generate similar positive outcomes.
The future of counselling provision will be influenced by the tax incentives offered by the Government to enable organisations to fully embrace and utilise a service that can help rehabilitate their employees. But even without tax incentives, organisations find that having a counselling support provision does make financial sense, and there is considerable evidence to demonstrate a positive return on investment for counselling.
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