Experts are predicting a growth in workplace counselling as a result of tax breaks promised by the Government.
Counselling has traditionally be classed as a benefit in kind and subject to taxation. But the Inland Revenue quietly announced at the end of last year that it would be exempting all counselling from tax as long as services are generally available to all employees. Previously the only exemption had been where counselling was given in the wake of workplace disasters such as the Paddington rail crash.
Counselling will also escape the imposition of national insurance on employee benefits which will come into force from April.
This liberalisation, combined with growing concerns about high stress levels among staff leading to high rates of sickness, is seen as a springboard for employers to offer counselling.
Employers, trade unions and counselling providers met with Inland Revenue officials recently to discuss the detail of the new tax exemptions.
Employers campaigned to change the law which they argued went against attempts to reduce sickness absence and was often unworkable due to the inter-related nature of personal and work problems.
Socpo president Rita Sammons, who attended the recent meeting, said the Inland Revenue had shown it was willing to listen and its flexible approach would help employers reduce absenteeism and provide employee counselling.
She said that there are still questions to be answered, such as how to distinguish between counselling and treatment and whether there would be a limit on the number of sessions an employee can receive. The Inland Revenue said details will be published after the Budget.
By Dominique Hammond