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Counselling: Working it out together: Companies are saving money as well as staff by helping with their personal problems

'IT WAS four in the morning when I heard a noise in the bedroom. I felt a knife against my throat and a voice said: 'Make a noise and you're dead.' '

As if this was not bad enough for the Liverpool publican who awoke to find his pub being burgled, the experience was worsened by the reaction of his boss. 'The district manager phoned. He wasn't really interested but said he'd come over the next day. He never even turned up. That was worse than the incident itself.'

Despite the best efforts of employers to prevent it, violence in the workplace is on the increase, especially in pubs, clubs, betting-shops and off-licences, and in those sectors that have been traditional targets for robbery, such as banks and building societies.

Responses to violence vary greatly, but, unlike the publican's employers in the example above, many companies are now realising that such incidents can have a profound effect on an employee's emotional health - ranging from acute anxiety to paranoia and depression. Consequently, they are also recognising the importance of offering post-incident support (PIS) to their staff.

There is no doubt that PIS can help the victims, but one should not underestimate its benefits to the company, as John Shaw, retail personnel controller of Thresher off-licences, explains.

'Before we introduced PIS, employees who had been subjected to violence could lose interest in their work, take long periods of time off, or sometimes even quit. Now they come back to work feeling able to cope.

'PIS for violence costs the company about pounds 20,000 per year and is worth every penny. The cost of recruiting and training a new branch manager is pounds 5,000, and we are much less likely to lose an employee through violence since we started the PIS scheme.

'Likewise, our people- centred approach is paying dividends when it comes to recruiting new staff, because we feel we are now attracting a higher quality of applicant, who appreciates our responsible approach.'

PIS is either run in-house, as with Coral, the leisure group, which sends all its area managers for specialist training at Cepec, a careers counselling company; or, as in the case of Thresher, by a combination of an internal team and an outside agency that is contracted to provide trained counsellors when needed.

Either way PIS tends to follow a standard procedure. The victim is visited within 24 hours by the area manager who tries to assess what is needed, but no attempt is made to force anything on to the employee. If extra counselling is wanted it is provided, but if the employee is happy without, his or her wishes are respected. However, if the employee opts for the latter, the area manager will call back within a fortnight to make sure he or she is still coping.

A violent attack may be the most traumatic event that can happen to someone in the workplace, but there are all sorts of other problems, for example with alcohol, relationships, money or the law, that can have an equal bearing on an employee's ability to do the job efficiently. Consequently, many companies are now running Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs).

An EAP is a voluntary and confidential service, staffed by trained counsellors and paid for by the company, which is open to all employees and members of their immediate families.

In the US, where EAPs originated in the early 1940s, such schemes are now standard practice. Today, 75 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies provide EAPs.

But while they quickly gained widespread acceptance in Austria, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, they were comparatively unknown in this country until recently. However, this has now changed somewhat: the Post Office and Midland Bank have both set up an internal counselling service, while British Gas, Reuters, the Department of Trade and Industry, Unilever and Whitbread have all called in Focus, an employee counselling consultancy, to establish and run EAPs on their behalf.

'We offer a short-term counselling service, where confidentiality is guaranteed,' says Melanie Lilley, the EAP manager at Focus. 'A Freefone line is established for each company, which comes directly through to our telephone counselling centre in Cockfosters, staffed by 14 trained counsellors.

'What happens when someone calls depends entirely on the nature of the problem. A lot of work-related calls, like disagreements with other staff members, can be solved over the phone just by talking through the situation. Other issues, such as relationship difficulties or alcohol and substance abuse, are more likely to require face-to-face counselling.

'When these arise we refer the caller to an appropriate counsellor, who lives within a 20-mile radius, with whom he or she can have between three and five free sessions.'

EAPs have certainly found favour with employees, as Jim, a branch manager at Thresher, testifies. 'I had received PIS after an armed hold-up in the shop. Initially, after the robbery I felt OK. But when someone came in the following week who looked like one of the robbers, I fell to pieces and had to leave the shop and take time off sick. I called the helpline, and after having a number of sessions with a counsellor, I had regained enough confidence to go back to work.'

EAPs do not come cheap, though: the cost to British Gas of running the service for its 68,000 employees has come to more than pounds 1m over the two years of its operation. Are they worth the money?

Kate Close, employee relations manager at Pizza Hut, is unequivocal about their value. 'Our scheme has only been going for a few months so we don't have any hard figures, but we have had an 11 per cent call-up rate. Branches all around the country report that staff are getting on a lot better with one another, and are more efficient as a result.'

This last point is crucial: many companies are just beginning to realise that economic growth depends as much on staff well-being as on rationalisation or new technology. Far from being an expensive white elephant, EAPs may just represent a cheap and enlightened way to sustained recovery.

(Photograph omitted)