Outplacement: Companies tackle labour pains: Counselling for redundant staff is spreading to the shopfloor. Alex Benady reports

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WITH unemployment so high and the power of trade unions laid so low, it seems an odd time for growth in the field of employee counselling.

Critics say it is more a matter of style than substance, pointing out that counselling is most commonly associated with 'outplacement' - the management euphemism for redundancy - and that it is largely given to management and senior executives.

This may have been true of the last recession. But since then outplacement counselling has spread to the shop floor. Nowadays at least as many workers as managers receive counselling in the workplace.

And there are signs that counselling is becoming an everyday 'human resources' function rather than a tool for crisis management. BP, British Aerospace and Allied-Lyons are just some of the well-known companies that counsel their blue-collar workers.

Bridget Litchfield, managing director of Focus, which she founded in 1982 to give counselling to blue-collar as well as executive victims of redundancy, defends her industry against accusations it is 'the velvet glove that wields the bloody axe'.

Ms Litchfield said: 'You don't blame ambulancemen for road accidents . . . We don't take the decision to cut jobs. We are only there to pick up the pieces.'

There are many reasons for this new concern for the well-being of what have traditionally been seen as little more than units of production. 'Part of it is that business really wants to become more ethical and bosses do feel genuinely bad about sackings,' Ms Litchfield said. More important, new technology has led to new business structures, which in turn require different attributes from the workforce - primarily flexibility.

'Motivation is a key aspect of flexibility,' she explained. 'And redundancy has an incredibly demoralising effect, not just on those who are sacked but also on those remaining.'

Helping those who have been made redundant seems to make the remaining employees much more committed.

Some companies even provide counselling support for those who stay on. When the Romford Brewery decided to shed 300 of 550 staff earlier this year, it felt it had to move swiftly to stem a potentially disastrous loss of morale. 'We called in Focus, who set up an on-site advice centre with three counselling rooms,' Ray Barnes, the personnel manager, said.

Ms Litchfield added: 'Time is of the essence, so our first step was to make a presentation to the employees explaining our service as soon as possible after the news was announced.'

Within days advisory centres were established so workers could drop in for one-to-one counselling. Employees had an average of three sessions each and counsellors did not limit the sessions to job-related issues, but dealt with any problem raised.

'It's difficult but not impossible to find new work at the moment,' said Ms Litchfield. 'But if you are burdened by resentment or fear it will show in interviews. So we are there to unburden them and offer a listening ear.'

Mr Barnes said the scheme was well received by the Romford Brewery's workforce. 'They genuinely feel that they have been fairly treated,' he said. 'It was a good commercial move and it was the right thing to do.'

Ms Litchfield thinks that, although blue-collar counselling has flourished in recession, it will be just as relevant to a growing economy.

'Demographics suggest that there will be a labour shortage by the end of the century. It will become all the more important to hang on to your trained workforce. Listening to them, which is what counselling is about, is one of the best ways to do that,' she said.