Counselling in the workplace 

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, 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.

We are happy to provide your business with this kind of service. We can come on site and deliver our services or this can be done by referral. Below is some research on counselling in the workplace.  

Workplace counselling may be defined as the provision of brief psychological therapy for employees of an organisation, which is paid for by the employer. An ‘external’ service, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), typically comprises face-to-face counselling, a telephone helpline, legal advice and critical-incident debriefing. In an ‘ in-house’ service, counsellors may be directly employed by the organisation. Workplace counselling offers employees a facility that is confidential, easily accessed (initial appointment normally within 2 weeks), provides a properly qualified and supervised practitioner, does not raise the threat of a diagnosis of psychiatric disorder, and promises to alleviate distress within a reasonably short period of time (most services allow only 6-8 sessions in any one year). Workplace counselling offers the employer a service that is valued by employees, has the potential for savings by reducing sickness absence, takes pressure off managers through the availability of a constructive means of dealing with ‘difficult’ staff or situations, and contributes to its reputation as a caring employer. Workplace counselling is often viewed by employers as an insurance policy against the threat of compensation claims made by employees exposed to work-related stress.

The provision of workplace counselling has steadily expanded over the past 20 years, with more than 75% of medium and large organisations in Britain and North America making counselling available to their staff (Carroll & Walton, 1999; Oher, 1999).

A review of research into the outcomes of workplace counselling (McLeod, 2001) identified 34 studies, including controlled studies, naturalistic studies in which reliable pre- and post-counselling data were collected, and case studies. Employees presented to counselling with high levels of psychological symptoms. 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 was reported in 60-75% of clients. Counselling was associated with reduction in sickness absence and improvement in other organisational outcomes such as more positive work attitudes, fewer accidents and enhanced work performance.

It is important to recognise the limitations of the existing research base for workplace counselling (McLeod, 2001). This is a field in which research has been significantly constrained by commercial considerations. There is also a great deal of sensitivity around confidentiality; the fear that ‘management’ may learn that a person has received counselling has made many clients and counsellors reluctant to complete research questionnaires. High attrition rates are found in such research samples.

However, despite these methodological weaknesses, the general picture that emerges is that workplace counselling is appreciated by its users, and appears to have a positive impact on objective measures of distress (e.g. sickness absence) and on self-reported measures of symptomatology.

Probably, several factors have contributed to the growth and popularity of workplace counselling. At one level, workplace counselling can be viewed merely as an application of methods of brief, relationship-focused psychological intervention that have been shown to be effective in other settings. A distinctive strength of workplace counselling is that the client is seen by a therapist who is sensitised to the combination of personal and work pressures that the person may present. Workplace counselling is a systemic, as well as individual, intervention. The introduction of a counselling service may begin to change the way that managers and other staff think and talk about emotional difficulties and personal problems. The costs to employers of psychological disability are clearly understood (Goldberg & Steury, 2001). The acceptability of workplace counselling is certainly linked to shifts in the meaning of work, and the movement away from collective to more individual modes of worker resistance (Wainwright & Calnan, 2002).