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On The Couch: Counselling at Work

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counselling at workEvidence suggests that providing a counselling at work service can help to reduce absence due to stress, increase productivity and reduce litigation. Rick Hughes and Andrew Kinder discuss the options available.





Stress at work is increasingly being cited as a major cause of sickness absence within organisations, even as high as 50 per cent of total absence. HR is often asked to make the changes to reduce such sickness absence, but this can be quite a challenge especially where the culture of the organisation has unwittingly allowed negative behaviours of managers and employees to occur unchecked.

Inevitably stress at work leads to lower organisational performance and leaves a trail of psychologically damaged individuals. To mitigate the problem and contain this damage, HR professionals need appropriate resources and interventions at their disposal.

One such tool is counselling at work. There is evidence to suggest that the cost of providing such services can be recouped by reduced absence, increased productivity, positive work effectiveness and reduced litigation (McLeod 2001).

Counselling service provision comes in many different forms and it can be confusing to know whether to have an internal service or contract out the service to an external provider, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP).

The Association for Counselling at Work (ACW) is the workplace division of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and has recently published 'Guidelines for counselling in the workplace' – available free as a PDF download from the ACW website.

The guidelines are supported by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the British Occupational Health Research Foundation, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, and the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association.

The guidelines provide a thorough overview of the major considerations involved when investing in counselling service provision, including;


  • What counselling is and what it isn't
  • Self-referrals vs management referrals
  • How counselling contributes to organisational development
  • Counselling for work and personal issues
  • Roles of a workplace counsellor
  • The difference between counselling, coaching and mentoring
  • Mediation and other support interventions

Organisations have many reasons why they choose to invest in counselling at work services ... and not just to tackle stress at work. For instance, a recent survey of 200 organisations found the following reasons for having a counselling service, in priority order:


  1. Provide additional support
  2. Even large HR departments can struggle with complex emotional and psychological difficulties experienced by staff such as suicide, trauma, harassment/bullying and sudden death within the workplace. A counselling service has the specialist resource where the problems are delegated to experienced therapists. Also, many employees prefer that the organisation is not privy to their personal difficulties. Without this resource, organisations can become bogged down in such issues, which can drain resources and lead to conflict and strife.

  3. Duty of care
  4. All organisations have a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy working environment for staff under employment and health and safety legislation – not just physically but also psychologically. A counselling service provision provides extra support that an organisation can use to demonstrate how it is meeting its duty of care.

  5. Support employees through major change
  6. In order to remain competitive, change is an inevitable part of organisational life. But resistance to change can trigger productivity paralysis through low morale and reduced output. Counselling allows employees to reflect on, manage and find solutions to the personal consequences of change.

  7. Help alleviate stress
  8. In 2004, the HSE set out a benchmark for 'stress standards'. Workplace counselling helps to empower employees to identify, manage and reduce personal sources of and responses to stress.

  9. Enhance wellbeing package
  10. Workplace counselling is seen as an invaluable benefit by many employees and supports the matrix of other wellbeing initiatives offered by HR and OH departments.

  11. Encourage retention and loyalty
  12. All organisations want to hang on to their valued employees. Having a workplace counselling provision demonstrates the organisation's commitment to staff and reflects a socially responsible attitude.

  13. Address sickness and absence
  14. Workplace counselling has been shown to help reduce absence by enabling absent employees to work with a therapist to address issues that might have triggered absence, whilst also considering the process of rehabilitation.

Counsellor standards and accountability

As the counselling profession in the UK moves towards statutory regulation, it is imperative that the profession maintains high standards and accountability.

What differentiates workplace counselling from 'mainstream' counselling are the complex organisational issues surrounding counselling, including the needs and demands of different stakeholders involved, together with issues surrounding risk and disclosure.

Confidentiality is given to employees but there are exclusions such as where there is a significant threat to health and safety, where the individual could harm themselves or others, or where there is a legal requirement for disclosure such as child protection or terrorism.

Rick Hughes is deputy chair of the ACW, and Andrew Kinder is chair of ACW as well as a chartered psychologist working for Atos Healthcare.

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