After the crisis at work, enter the counsellors

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The words "workplace" and "trauma" appear, to have little kinship. Unless, that is, you work for the emergency services or you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a freak disaster such as the one at Columbine High last month. But employers are starting to believe that trauma is a risk for all staff in all environments and are hiring "trauma counsellors" to help them. A destructive Nineties fad or an example of astute and caring company ethics?

Andrea Walsh, an accounts manager in the City, wholeheartedly believes the latter. She walked into the office one morning to discover that her closest colleague - aged just 26 - had died from an asthma attack on the bus. "A professional was sent in immediately to help our department air our grief, with the option of one-to-one counselling afterwards," she says. "We were all unprepared for how upset we'd be so it really helped. I then began to suffer from severe panic attacks and think I'd have resigned if it wasn't for the help on offer."

Cashier Nicky Andrews, did just that. Held at knifepoint by an enraged customer, she was left unwounded but severely traumatised. "With nothing but a bunch of flowers from my employers, I started suffering from dreadful headaches and lack of concentration. Quite simply, I couldn't work."

Typical reactions to violent or distressing incidents also include tremors, flashbacks, stomach upsets and feeling dazed. "These responses are quite normal and very often resolve themselves within a few days," says trauma counsellor, Thelma Williams. "But when sufferers can't acknowledge their emotions about the event, these symptoms may be heightened or prolonged. That's where "critical incident debriefing" by a trained counsellor can help. Just one session with everyone affected by the incident provides them with a caring framework in which they can make sense of their feelings. I remember one woman who was held at gunpoint being extremely confused by her reaction. But through debriefing, she realised the experience had awakened feelings of when she had been raped some years earlier."

In the business of feelings, however, nothing is predictable. Which is why, as Stephen Galliano, clinical director of the Employee Assistance Programme, at Icas UK, says, one-to-one counselling is as vital - if not more - as the de-briefing. "If a person suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms may only start manifesting themselves some months later."

John Stassin, a train driver, knows this all too well. When a teenager jumped in front of his tube train, he felt surprisingly unmoved. "I think I felt I ought to be unfazed. After all, all of us here know that every week one or two people are injured - some fatally - after jumping on to the track. A couple of months later, though, I started to blame myself and without counselling, I honestly believe I might have taken my life."

Nevertheless, says Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology, trauma counselling can be highly detrimental when used inappropriately. "It can be seen by employers as a quick-fix prevention to the possibility of poor productivity or resignation without much thought put into the actual needs of the victims." Imagine, for example, if a death at work brings up unresolved feelings of a death experienced in childhood. You pour your heart out and just as you begin to let out your feelings, your counsellor tells you your total time limit is up. The consequence? Further trauma.

Peter Allen of the Richmond Fellowship - which offers an accredited course in post-traumatic-stress counselling - has additional concerns. "We are hearing about more and more cowboys who are calling themselves counsellors to earn a quick buck. The effects can be fatal because many people's fundamental life assumptions and securities are challenged when they are confronted by death, destruction or loss." Mr Cooper found that one in five counsellors for Employee Assistance Programmes are inadequately trained.

Margaret Jarvie, who has provided an after-raid service to a bank for 10 years, believes many counsellors rush in too quickly. "No one should intervene professionally for several days because before that, people are too shocked to deal with their feelings." Employees themselves may also be put off the idea of trauma counselling. "To them, the Bradford and Zebrugge disasters constitute trauma, but some angry client punching a colleague in the face does not," says Professor Cooper. "But in reality, situations like this can be far more shocking and intrusive than people expect."

According to the Health and Safety Executive, there has been a fast rise in the number of violent attacks in the workplace. Schools and libraries, for instance, are higher risk environments than ever before. And according to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, more market researchers and social workers have to cope with being threatened with dogs, being punched or spat at while staff from housing departments have the odd kitchen sink or toilet hurled at them. All the more reason, say occupational health experts, that while the nature of counselling on offer is likely to continue fuelling debate, it's a service that must become the norm. As Thelma Williams says: "It's not the incident itself that's the crisis, but the reaction to it."