Employee Relations: Sympathetic ears at the listening bank: An advice service that started in-house at the Midland is extending its care to troubled workers elsewhere

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A WOMAN employee has a husband who is a philanderer and who gambles their money away. More recently, he has started drinking heavily and getting into violent rages. The woman is suffering. So is her work. She is struggling to keep up appearances and does not know where to turn, but the boss is the last person she feels like confiding in.

Passing the coffee machine at work, she notices that the company offers a confidential open line. She phones and fixes up a counselling session to help her deal with the complex emotions engulfing her.

After six face-to-face sessions, she decides to leave her husband and give him a chance to mend his ways - or file for divorce if he doesn't. She feels in control of her life for the first time in years. Her boss notes that her work has improved, but can't quite work out why.

The case is fictional, but it could well happen if the woman were employed by Midland Bank, which has run a confidential help line for staff since 1991.

Under Catherine Green, its head of career services, Midland built up expertise in personal, career and post-trauma counselling, and is now diversifying. Advice and support is offered on issues from sexual harassment and alcohol abuse to anxiety, depression and consumer rights. Trained counsellors offer up to eight face-to-face sessions per problem, free of charge to clients.

Staff of other companies can now benefit from the same service, because Mentors Counselling Consultants is being launched this week, and other employers may subscribe.

Ms Green, who now heads Mentors, is a trained counsellor with an eclectic CV and a commitment to the benefits of employee counselling. She once worked as a nursing specialist in Christian Barnard's heart transplant unit in Cape Town, then set up her own computer business, sold it on, and joined a client company before she moved to Midland Bank. She believes that employers who buy the service should make sure that acceptance of the philosophy of confidential counselling spreads through the company culture, from boardroom to post-room.

The personal counselling service, Open Line, is charged on a per capita basis. Ms Green explains: 'It is a way of ensuring that, once it's introduced to the organisation, senior managers support it and communicate its benefits down to their teams.

'It's my belief that managers should spend their time managing, producing and performing rather than attempting to deal with problems they do not have the training or expertise to handle. Every employee should know that the company thinks counselling is OK. You don't have to be a flop, a freak or a failure to use the service.'

At Midland Bank, about one in 20 in a workforce of 48,000 use the service. The London offices of banks based in Australia, New Zealand and Japan already subscribe, and the take-up is running between 8 and 10 per cent of the workforce. So far, no rival British clearing bank has bought the service, but the newly branded business is in the market for fresh subscribers.

Another specialist service, Crisis Mentors, offers post-trauma counselling. At Midland, the personnel department passes details of every bank raid to Ms Green's team. The next day, a counsellor is dispatched to the branch where the raid happened and works with the staff in a group format, where facts and feelings are explored. Staff who request one-to-one counselling are given it.

There is a follow-up meeting a week later.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress can strike days, weeks or even months after the event. But, as Crisis Mentors operates under the same umbrella as Open Line, staff who need further counselling can pick up the phone or be referred to local sources of professional help if they prefer it.

Bank and building society branches are not the only potential raid targets. Shops, security transport companies and cashier departments are all vulnerable. Even a supermarket chain in the South of England is interested in the service.

Career Mentors is the third arm of the business, offering outplacement and career development. With the shake-out in high street banks and the spread of automation, many people have learned the painful lesson that banking is no longer a guaranteed job for life.

Change can be cruel, and the service gives organisations the scope to manage redundancies in a humane way, helping staff who face losing jobs to assess their strengths and to market themselves effectively.

Companies that make confidential counselling available to staff get much more than just a warm glow in return.

In the US, employee assistance programmes have been offered as a standard benefit to employees by leading companies since the 1960s. The growth has been spurred by the resulting improvements in morale and productivity, leading to lower levels of absenteeism and staff turnover. Bottom-line savings far outstrip the costs.

Offering confidential counselling is good for the business as well as for the workforce.

(Photograph omitted)

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