In the first of two articles, Judith Tavanyar looks at how to make workplace counselling effective.

The vision statement of the Association for Counselling at Work, quoted in 2007 guidelines published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is: “For everyone in the UK to be happy to go to work, confident they have access to appropriate support within a positive culture, thus increasing the wellbeing, health and motivation of the workforce and maximising productivity”.

These words may sound idealistic in our current economic environment. Even at a time when there is a reported increase in recruitment, there are still many people hanging onto their jobs for all they are worth, whether or not they are happy in them. In May 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics Labour Market Statistics, 2.52 million people aged 16 and over were seeking work in the UK — one in five of them had been unemployed for two or more years. We might assume that some of these long-term jobseekers would be happy to go to any job if it provided relief from financial anxiety.

At the same time, in a recent statement, BACP underlined the serious impact of reduced support for employees experiencing the multiple stresses of potential redundancy, work overload or job cuts, alongside an apparently constant process of organisational restructuring. As corporate belts are increasingly tightened, employee assistance schemes of all kinds are coming under the axe in an effort to save costs and stay within budget, at an obvious cost to employee well-being.

Research into the overall effectiveness of workplace counselling is still, of course, somewhat limited. Confidentiality arrangements mean that feedback is sometimes general; and measurement of outcomes has previously been regarded as difficult without clear objectives. Furthermore, it may take time for relief from work-related stress and anxiety in the short term to translate productively into positive behaviour change in service users in the longer term. By implication, monitoring initiatives may fail to show hoped-for results if they do not take into account that changes in individual morale and confidence, even if immediate, often become visible more gradually, over months, rather than weeks.

Nevertheless, a BACP study in 2012, Workplace Measurement Survey, highlighted that two thirds of workplace counselling services use established measures to monitor service effectiveness against specified outcomes, and 73% of respondents using such measures are “generally, largely or highly positive” about their value.

Despite limited research, there is significant anecdotal evidence that many who use workplace counselling view it as nothing less than transformative — sometimes even a life-saver — quite aside from the significant cost savings for organisations that are able to retain staff with regained motivation and diminished stress. What then are the practical considerations for HR commissioners seeking to establish an effective workplace counselling service?

Defining what the service should provide is an obvious starting point. Is it counselling, coaching, training, a blend of each, or something else, that your organisation needs to offer? Any workplace counselling service, run by qualified psychotherapists linked with a recognised professional body such as BACP or the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), might address a whole range of emotional difficulties, from anxiety attacks through to lack of energy and severe depression. It might explore new strategies for addressing challenges and building strengths and, by doing so, aim to improve workplace performance for the employer and the damaging effects of unrecognised and untreated stress for the employee.

In contrast, coaching may focus uniquely on skills development and building strengths, relating, for example, to time management, dealing with a difficult boss or peer, learning composure when dealing with a challenging situation, or even preparation for promotion. But it is unlikely to explore emotional challenges in any depth. Similarly, training programmes can sometimes be a sound choice when, say, there is a widespread organisational need to explore stress or time management techniques.

Adequate promotion of the services across multiple channels — the backs of toilet doors are as relevant as corporate Facebook posts — so that all potential beneficiaries are aware of its existence is highly important, offering friendly, practical information which positions the service in positive terms as a confidential resource for all kinds of work-related challenges.

Providing the counselling in a private and comfortable setting that is “fit for purpose” is also key. It can be offered onsite in a dedicated room, but often employees appreciate the discretion and flexibility of an off-site, out-of-hours arrangement, usually referred to as “employee assistance” rather than workplace counselling.

Addressing the accessibility of the service is another question — will it be openly available to everyone, or accessed only by referral from a boss or HR contact? Workplace counselling offered on an “open access” basis tends to have wider take-up than arrangements to which an employee needs to be referred via an HR contact or boss, partly because it tends to attract people at an earlier stage with a particular challenge, and thus, arguably, has greater chance of effectiveness than when viewed as a “last resort” for the seriously stressed. Sadly, some people may never discuss their difficulties with their boss or an HR person, especially when they relate to emotional welfare, and hence may not even know the service is available if it is not “open access”.

Some obvious considerations relate to quality of service provision. As stated, counsellors must be qualified, adequately experienced, with full insurance cover, and receive regular external supervision. They should offer cancellation terms and a complaints procedure for client use which should be formalised within the contractual arrangement. Establishing references and a previous track record of delivery in business settings is crucial when recruiting and selecting the provider; that they should possess in-depth knowledge of your organisation’s area of industry is probably less so.

Confidentiality and trust are also at the heart of effective service delivery. Complete confidentiality must be guaranteed for all service users at all times — except in relatively rare and extreme circumstances where there is a risk of serious harm or illegal activity — and there are strict ethical requirements regarding service users’ rights to confidentiality, respect and privacy. Counsellors who do not adhere to these are not only breaching professional codes of conduct, they forfeit the confidence of their clients and thus the effectiveness of their service.

In consequence, any counselling contract needs to be specific about the level of feedback (if any) that the commissioner seeks regarding the topics that are arising from counselling overall. While this is important for monitoring and fine-tuning purposes, feedback should be discussed and formalised within the contractual agreement without compromising the counselling service offered in any way. An anonymised overview of general topics shared every three months or so might thus be appropriately agreed; a detailed discussion of issues that might identify specific individuals never should be.

Workplace counselling is usually short term, highly practical, and solution-focused. It is as necessary in our stressful lives as it has ever been, and, in those organisations where a “positive culture” of open communication can finally help to remove the taboo associated with “needing help”, it may genuinely show itself to be transformational.

Further information

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, www.bacpworkplace.org.uk

UK Council for Psychotherapy, www.psychotherapy.org.uk

Last reviewed 17 February 2014