Commissioning effective workplace counselling

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Aug 2011

01 Aug 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Defining workplace counselling

If you were planning a skills development programme for your employees it’s commonplace to have defined outcomes and objectives, a strong implementation plan and a very clear sense of your intended return on investment. Often when it comes to workplace counselling many organisations neglect this important planning and preparation stage. As a result these employers may ultimately be unsure about the return on investment of counselling for their organisation. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. With positive positioning, work to encourage uptake of counselling referrals and investment in the means to evaluate the effectiveness of counselling services, all parties can benefit from an effective service.

So, what exactly is workplace counselling? It aims to encourage self-responsibility, empowerment and heightened awareness and offer benefits that work just as well in the workplace as in our personal lives. A key difference, though, between workplace counselling and counselling that an individual employee might source himself or herself is the cost to the employee and speed of access. EAP counselling referrals can usually be put in place in a matter of days compared to the notoriously long waiting lists in the NHS, and as a service offered by employers to employees in need, individuals do not have to spend the time involved to identify a suitable practitioner or meet the cost of private therapy which can be prohibitive to many employees.

Another key characteristic of workplace counselling is that line managers can trigger a referral. A manager might spot that a team member is particularly ‘weepy’ or that their usually high performance and productivity standards are dropping. In this instance the line manager may seek to refer an employee for counselling to support the employee and potentially improve performance, their understanding of team dynamics and to minimise the risk of a negative impact on the team, a current project or performance generally. Early intervention can help an employee assess what they need in the workplace and their personal lives and strengthen coping mechanisms while identifying where and what type of support is needed.

Regardless of the trigger for the intervention, counselling should be one of a range of solutions that an employer offers to assist and support the health and wellbeing of their people. Yet to be successful it needs to be a voluntary process – after all, you can’t ‘make’ an employee attend counselling sessions.

To ensure this success, the setting up or contracting of the service needs to be transparent in order that the employee can build trust in the service and managers can easily communicate the potential positive impact it can offer. Often, the very provision of a counselling service is enough to build confidence within the workplace; it signifies the care an employer is taking and gives a feeling of safety to an individual knowing that help is at hand should things not improve naturally.

Organisations can deliver counselling to employees in a number of ways. For example, it may be through directly employing a counsellor in a workplace setting, such as the Occupational Health department. However, the most common way this solution is made available to employees is through an employee assistance programme (EAP). An EAP addresses an employee’s difficulties with a wide range of support and information and counselling is commonly a key aspect of the comprehensive service they offer.

Developing a successful attitude to counselling

The initial step towards delivering ‘successful’ counselling is to spend time with all the stakeholders – including the HR team, occupational health, health and safety mangers, welfare officers, trade unions, line managers and staff representatives – to identify the typical health and wellbeing issues faced by the organisation and its employees. This analysis helps to develop a cohesive approach to employee support and enables the positive promotion of the service when it gets nearer to launch.

Once the framework for workplace counselling has been agreed, the internal marketing of the service will be critical to its acceptance and success in the business. Here it is important to emphasise to employees and line managers that counselling is a confidential intervention that is designed to address personal and workplace issues. So, for example, if a counselling referral is made to address attendance issues it is very likely that personal issues will be addressed and often to some extent resolved.

The best promotion of a workplace counselling service is word of mouth. Therefore, an environment that is open to discussion about sensitive issues, such as counselling referrals, is likely to have a positive impact on the counselling uptake. Acceptance and integration throughout the company, in particular by Occupational Health and HR teams, can facilitate this process.

Contracting the correct approach to counselling

Contracting is a vital element of ‘successful’ counselling. If an organisation is paying for the counselling service it’s essential that they use this opportunity to clarify their own agenda. Here it’s the job of a counselling provider to help an organisation establish why they want the counselling service in the first place and what they want to achieve. Based on this the counsellor can integrate these (high level) objectives onto the type of problems and issues an organisation and their demographic workforce are likely to have, as also discussed with key stakeholders.

An organisation with a predominately young workforce, for example, might have significant issues with debt (from student loans), housing issues, (living away from home for the first time) and social issues (as people make and break relationships). While this type of analysis is something of a generalisation, it represents the type of workforce analysis that can be useful if considered alongside other areas of HR strategy including attendance management, workplace stress and increased productivity.

A clear counselling contract is vital for employers in situations where an organisation has a greater involvement in counselling than, for example, employee wellbeing. Here there may be an issue of litigation or an employee disciplinary process for issues such as negligence or bullying. In this situation, the counselling contract exists between a provider and the employer, as well as the client. When the individual employee sees the counsellor they will need to develop a more detailed contract.

In certain circumstances limited feedback such as the number of sessions attended, whether the employee has engaged in the process might be considered as appropriate feedback to the organisation. However, not all counsellors are comfortable working to this type of contract and it is important that this is considered when implementing a workplace service. It takes a particular skill set and level of comfort to understand and work with organisational dynamics, manage complex contracts and ensure that standards and ethics are maintained. For this reason it is important that organisations consider the bigger picture when implementing a counselling service and take expert advice.

Encouraging managed referrals

Alongside offering employees the opportunity to access confidential counselling services themselves through an EAP, line managers should also be encouraged to make referrals as part of their role to support and develop team members.

Making a managed referral in this way not only supports the individual line manager – who is then freed up to concentrate on their day-to-day-duties and responsibilities – but also ensures that an employee can access targeted, professional support as soon as possible. The speedy resolution of issues in this way can help return an employee back to a high level of performance and prevent unnecessary absence from the workplace.

Record keeping is a very important (and sensitive) issue when it comes to managed referrals, especially those that focus on workplace issues. Here, the audit trail of records may be called upon where a grievance or disciplinary is likely or where the employee may seek legal redress for a perceived wrongdoing.

A flexible workplace solution

Counselling sessions are increasingly available in a range of formats, including online (chat room or email) and over the phone. This delivery works particularly well for people who struggle to make a regular commitment to a meeting, need to arrange childcare or have mobility problems.

Just as counselling responds to the changes in available technology, it also needs to evolve to support our changing culture and society. In these days of high pressure living, the demands of putting yet another regular appointment in the diary, especially at times of crisis, can be too much. It’s in these circumstances that employees can benefit enormously from access to ‘round the clock’ counselling support. Often, access to crisis support or being able to use a counsellor as a sounding board can be a very effective solution to the pressures of modern life.