When cracks begin to show, it's time to call the stress-busters: Demand for counselling grows as corporate upheaval leaves the staff all shook up. David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
ENGINEERS are used to talking about stress: buildings suffer from it, and have to be treated accordingly. But companies are starting to recognise that people also suffer from stress and that the cost to the employer can be high. Consequently, more and more are importing counselling services to help employees deal with problems that can stop them working efficiently.

A Mori survey found that about half the organisations with more than 50 employees provide access to counselling. Government workers are best served, with 65 per cent coverage, while only 30 per cent of manufacturing workers have access to such services. But 75 per cent of the personnel managers polled said they believed that counselling at work would increase, and half the companies with no service said they planned to provide one.

TDA Consulting Group, of Brentford, Middlesex, is doing most of its work with service-sector companies, including large banks and insurance companies. This is not surprising, because these sectors have been powerfully shaken by the recession. Barry Spence, TDA's counselling services director, says: 'The greatest cause of stress is uncertainty, when the person who was sitting next to you for so many years has suddenly gone and you can't get reassurance from your boss, because he has gone too.'

Chris Dunn, TDA's chairman, says that 'de-layering' and other forms of corporate transformation have increased employee stress. 'We are now paying the price for much of the corporate re-engineering that has gone on,' he says.

TDA is about to launch a programme designed to deal with workers' stress. The Wellbeing programme will require employees to fill in a questionnaire, in order to produce an occupational stress indicator - a general picture of the person's mental health. People are asked, for example, whether they find organisational changes, specific tasks or relationships the most difficult. They are tested to determine personality type - between super-active Type A and laid-back Type B. They are asked how well they cope with stress: can they switch off after work, for example?

A consultant will then develop, with each employee, a 'personal action plan'. This is practical and specific. For example, if he or she is being given too much work, TDA will help to assemble the arguments to put to the boss; if the person at the next desk talks too much, it will suggest tactful ways of shutting him up. 'We help to marshall thoughts,' says Mr Spence.

As well as helping to reduce stress, counsellors also assist employees to improve performance: someone who is disorganised may be offered a course in time management, for example. The technique is to identify the problem, help the employee put together a plan to tackle it, and then let him put the plan into action on his own.

Consultancies will avoid taking the boss's place unless it is necessary. 'Part of a line manager's job is to act as a counsellor and mentor,' Mr Dunn says. 'But there will be some circumstances where an individual may not be able to open up to him.' Most companies will continue to use a combination of line managers, personnel officers and possibly counsellors.

Counsellors may also be used by managers who need help to tackle difficult situations. TDA was recently called in by a small hi-tech company in the Midlands whose managing director was worried about the arrogant and abrasive attitude of his sales manager. He had talked to him several times but things had not improved, and he was on the point of dismissing him, but was persuaded to try a counsellor first.

John Brazier, a counsellor with TDA, met the manager and learnt that he wanted to improve his relationships. It emerged that he resented anything that interfered with his ability to satisfy his customers, especially when it resulted from his colleagues' failures. He rarely talked to colleagues, and when he did it was usually because he wanted something in a hurry.

On Mr Brazier's advice, he started dropping in on his colleagues informally, when he was not under pressure, and also suggested they should get together before the monthly sales meeting, so that it would not end up in the usual confrontation. After initial scepticism, they started responding; everyone was happier, and the sales manager kept his job.

Mr Dunn believes counselling will be used increasingly for work other than trouble-shooting. 'There is a growing appreciation that it is not just about remedial work; it is equally to do with helping individuals develop their skills and aspirations,' he says.

Some consultancies offer Employee Assistance Programmes. These are sold to companies as a packages of counselling, and staff are encouraged to ring the counsellors, confidentially, whenever they like.

Mr Dunn says there is also a case for offering a regular counselling service to all employees, a sort of personal MOT. 'Having the opportunity to talk about personal circumstances and career regularly is very useful,' he says. 'You can get a hell of a lot out of talking to an unbiased observer.'