Some companies, however, are realising that while, strictly speaking, personal problems are nothing to do with them, keeping their employees' home and emotional lives on track is to their advantage. This isn't born of simple altruism, of course; the philosophy behind it is that a happy employee is a productive and focused one, while an employee fretting over a disaster on the home front is likely to be giving less than 100 per cent to the job.
Some large firms are able to employ full-time counsellors in-house. But even the biggest are unlikely to be able to cover all potential disasters using their own resources, and this is where using an external troubleshooter begins to seem like an attractive proposition. Currently the only one- stop shop for this kind of service is a scheme called LifeWorks. It is already well established in other countries round the world, and is now carving out a niche in Britain.
Currently the main takers for the service are big finance houses, where training is expensive and losing employees is costly. Now the retail section too is beginning to experience problems with recruitment and retention, and major retail employers are beginning to look at making life better for staff. The LifeWorks client list is expanding all the time, and the service, currently available from 8am to 8pm, goes 24/24 in January. Employees of companies that subscribe can make unlimited calls for help. The scheme is free, confidential, covers everything from bullying at work to finding care for a child or an elderly relative to getting help for a drink problem, and plenty else besides. Call the LifeWorks 0800 number and a whole range of services is there for the taking - if your boss is prepared to pay.
In an emergency, LifeWorks can prove to be a lifeline. Janet Bailey works at the customer service centre of the Britannia Building Society in Leek, Staffordshire. Britannia first introduced the LifeWorks service last year, and at the time she never thought she would have to use it. "I thought it would be of interest to some people, but not me!" she says. Then Janet's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Initially she went to live with Janet's sister, but it soon became clear that a long-term solution was needed.
"My mother needs 24-hour care," says Janet. "As a person deteriorates, things become more and more difficult; it becomes like having a young child." Janet rang LifeWorks, who took down details of the care her mother needed. "Within a week I had a pile of information," she says. "There were details of umpteen homes, their fees and what kind of cases they could take, plus details of the Alzheimer's Society local groups. It was great, because until you've been in that situation you just don't know what to look for."
Armed with the LifeWorks material, Janet was able to narrow down the choice of homes and make a decision with the rest of her family. Being able to offload so much legwork, she says, was a great weight off her mind. "It saved me an enormous amount of time. I've got two children, aged 14 and four, and with a young family, in this kind of situation, you do feel terribly torn. Your mother is your mother, but you also have to think of your family and your work." She was also impressed with the follow-up. "They called regularly to see how I was and how things were going, which was very, very good."
Jonathan Burchill, customer services manager at the HSBC branch in Kensington, used LifeWorks to help to find a school for his four-year-old son Jamie, and then to arrange after-school care. "We explained the area and the hours that we needed and they came up with a community hall with a group that picks up the kids from the school itself and looks after them until their parents can come and get them after work," he says. "We would never have found it by ourselves. It saved us so much time and hassle. I can't see any downside to this kind of service, apart from the cost involved to the company."
According to Gerry Longhurst, head of the human resources department at the Britannia Building Society, it's a cost that is well worth it. There are, he says, two reasons why the society decided to use LifeWorks. "The first is a hard commercial reason - underperformance at work has a bad effect on the service level we can offer," he says. "The second is that it is an important part of our family-friendly policy. We want to demonstrate to our staff that we care about them."
Fin O'Hara, the business development manager at Ceridian, the company which developed LifeWorks, believes that more and more managers will come to think the same way. "Companies are competing for bright young graduates and second-jobbers and they need to attract the right people and keep them," she says. "Plenty of research has shown that quality of life is key for this kind of employee." The cost to the employer of implementing LifeWorks, she explains, is worked out per employee per year, and the service must be available to everyone who works for the company. "It's not like private medical schemes that are only for senior management - we wouldn't work with anyone on that basis."
It's difficult, she says, to give an idea of what percentage of staff take the service up and how their needs break down. "Many calls are complex and don't fit into simple boxes. For example, if a woman rings and says her husband has just left, she might need legal advice on one hand and someone who'll pick the kids up from school on the other. A call might take 25 minutes work to sort out, or our researchers might spend five or six hours or a whole day on a problem."
Some calls, says Fin O'Hara, can be sorted out from the LifeWorks databases, which is straightforward but takes time. "Our researchers do a lot of legwork that way. If you want to find a vegetarian childminder in a certain area who will not only pick up from certain schools but who also actually has a vacancy, it takes an awful lot of phoning." The research team is backed up by specialist consultants and counsellors round the country. "Many of our staff are ex-social workers, ex-medical staff, ex-teachers, and they are all properly trained," she says.
It's not all doom and gloom; one more cheerful task was to find a castle in Scotland for someone's wedding. Fin O'Hara claims it's not often that the LifeWorks team is stumped. "What we do find, however, is people coming to us looking for things that don't exist - for example a level of childcare that simply isn't possible within their budget," she says. "When this happens, we try to reset people's expectations and find an alternative." Although employees tend to turn to LifeWorks in an emergency, the ideal, she says, will be when they come to LifeWorks before the situation reaches crisis point. "We want to get to people in the early stages of having a problem, or even before they have a problem," she says. "Things are often much easier to sort out before they reach a critical stage."
Some situations, however, simply can't be planned for in advance. Debbie Archer was working in the Lincoln branch of the Britannia when she was involved in an armed raid in July. The robber forced her to empty the safe and tills at gunpoint before making off on a motorbike. Debbie went back to work the day after the raid, but she was extremely traumatised. "When something like that happens, you realise that you could die," she says. "I started doing odd things, like writing letters to my two girls for them to open if I did die, and getting their birthday and Christmas presents years in advance, and getting my partner to learn how to plait their hair in case he had to do it when I wasn't there."
Her two daughters, aged four and eight, were also very upset. "They didn't want me to go to work, and every time the older one saw a motorbike she'd say 'I saw the man with the gun!'," recalls Debbie. "In the end I rang LifeWorks and burst into tears. They weren't thrown at all. First they sent me information on counselling, and they called me every day to see how I was. Then they found a counsellor who had helped other people in similar situations. After I'd seen him twice I didn't write any more letters or buy any more presents." Debbie credits LifeWorks with helping her get to "98 per cent back to how I was". "It's nice to have independent, unbiased advice on tap from someone who knows what they're talking about," she says. "I'm not sure I'd have gone back to work if I hadn't had the help I did."
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