In the second of two articles on the subject, Judith Tavanyar looks at why workplace counselling needs an open and caring leadership culture to deliver results.

“When I first saw Sarah, I was completely desperate. My manager had suggested that I might benefit from going to see a counsellor several months before, and kept telling me how obvious it was that I needed emotional support. I had lost three stone in just two months, and was averaging about four hours sleep a night. Of course you try and leave your worries at home, but going through a divorce, moving out of my home and my mother’s illness — something had to give, and I just became more and more withdrawn at work. I showed up every day but I wasn’t really achieving anything, and as I had been a top performer in my team I felt humiliated when I kept making silly mistakes.

“I was just plain exhausted, really. But I remember how angry I felt when anyone suggested I needed help. To me, it looked like a sign of weakness. I wish now I’d gone to see a counsellor much sooner — getting through this stressful time took longer than if I’d been honest with myself straightaway and admitted I was slowly going under with all these different issues happening at once.”

This account is offered, with her client’s consent, by Sarah, a psychotherapist colleague who works with employee assistance schemes across the south of England. Sarah is not her real name, but her client’s story is sadly a common one.

An earlier article describes how the set-up and delivery of employee assistance services helps to ensure that they meet expectations regarding quality, practical applicability of approach, confidentiality and privacy issues, budget and time considerations. In other words, a sound and measurable return on resource invested for those who manage the service, and beneficial, lasting outcomes for service users. The piece also highlighted the business case behind employee assistance schemes: supporting people back to effectiveness and regained confidence is a cheaper process than ignoring the problem and facing ongoing performance problems, demotivated personnel and, in the most extreme cases, the possibility of serious long-term mental and physical illness among over-stressed staff.

While many organisations continue to offer employee assistance schemes, even in the face of severe economic constraints, knowing that they can be invaluable in reducing stress-related under-performance (and a whole variety of other challenges, of varying degrees of seriousness), there are still too many reasons why such schemes do not always deliver hoped-for outcomes.

As the client’s story above indicates, rapid access to the service is a key influential factor: prevarication and delay almost always make a workplace counsellor’s job more challenging. In mental as in physical health, problems on any scale do not always just “go away”. Indeed, the opposite is often the case — stress-related symptoms on any scale may become more entrenched, and thus more difficult to relieve, if left untended in the longer-term.

So why is it that most of us would not hesitate to consult our GP if we suspected some physical injury, but far more often neglect to seek professional support if we suffer from the early signs of depression or severe anxiety? Fear of stigma, being judged as incompetent or weak, and consequently being demoted or made redundant are not the least among some of the possible reasons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some employees would rather resign than speak to their manager about the more serious emotional impact of loss of confidence through chronic anxiety or depression.

Mental ill health, on whatever scale of seriousness, is a subject about which we remain astonishingly under-informed, even though around one in six of us are likely to experience serious depression in our lifetime1 and, based on 2013 figures, almost 5000 people each year in the UK are likely to end their own lives through depression-related causes.

These are distressing statistics, and they are reinforced by the taboo and entrenched stigma that surrounds the topic of mental health both outside and within the workplace. So what can team leaders and managers do to overcome such barriers and support employees towards using the workplace counselling or other assistance scheme available for them?

The good news, first of all, is that there is a great deal they can do. It appears that the success of any employee assistance scheme depends to a considerable extent not only upon the quality and accessibility of the service, but upon the openness (or otherwise) of the organisational culture in which it operates.

Acknowledging that problems from home can and very often do get brought into work is an all-important starting point. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) guidelines2 highlight: “It is apparent that personal or domestic issues have a significant impact on work… similarly, work-related stress… can have an adverse impact on home life”.

If fear of stigma and negative judgments are compelling reasons why people are afraid to access emotional support at work, then team leaders who understand that employees are not always able to simply “hang up” their problems like a coat at the office door are also more likely to look out for, and explore with sensitivity, any difficulties they may face. Managers who are able to engage the trust of their staff in discussing challenges and concerns early can help to reassure and put these in perspective, thereby avoiding a potentially more serious crisis of confidence at a later date.

Recognising the potential early indications of enduring anxiety or depression is also an invaluable managerial skill. Naomi Quenk3 describes how we commonly talk about someone “not acting like herself” at work or elsewhere — and, indeed, uncharacteristic behaviour is a key indicator of an employee or team member who may be feeling seriously overwhelmed or unable to cope. While everyone has their “off days”, a normally expressive team member who becomes increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative, or a typically “introverted” person who becomes explosively angry may well be a cause for concern if the behaviour continues over an extended period of time.

Leaders are often trained to manage and monitor performance, less often to develop the skills in coaching, stress management and emotional intelligence that enable them to explore the reasons behind under-performance with sensitivity and understanding. Highly developed listening skills are key, and asking the kind of open questions that prevent a “quick fix” or easily-drawn conclusion in conversations where there may be more serious causes for failure to meet targets, or repeated lateness, than those that seem immediately apparent.

A tall order, perhaps, but no one is suggesting that today’s leaders need to be highly trained psychologists to support staff who are struggling at work. However, those who take time to establish trust and open, respectful relationships with their employees, who tackle conflict early and encourage people to share difficulties without fear, and who are able to encourage the use of workplace counselling as a valuable source of support for all kinds of difficulties experienced by all kinds of people (including themselves) — these are the kind of leaders who can finally remove the unhelpful stigma that surrounds stress-related underperformance in the workplace.

References

1“How to Spot Boys with the Blues”, Ridge D, The Daily Express, 3 December 2013.

2Guidelines for Counselling in the Workplace, Hughes R, Kinder A, BACP.

3In the Grip: Our Hidden Personality, Quenk N, Oxford Pyschologists Press, 1996.

Last reviewed 17 February 2014