'Quacks' prey on the fears of employers

Occupational psychology: Conference hears claim that counselling services are often 'overrated' by firms
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Labour Editor

"Quacks" have moved into the counselling business, wrongly claiming they can mitigate legal action taken by stressed workers against their employers.

Even the most reputable consultancies hint that they can help in court cases, but this is not true, according to a consultant business psychologist.

Providers of the so-called employee assistance programmes are taking advantage of growing fears among companies that they can be sued by staff suffering from mental health problems, Carolyn Highley told the annual occupational psychology conference of the British Psychological Society in Eastbourne.

Generally, programmes were "overrated" and only of real benefit when they were part of a coherent attempt by management to change conditions and organisational culture to minimise stress, she said.

Fears over litigation have grown since a social work manager from Northumberland last year became the first British employee to successfully sue his employer after two nervous breakdowns. About 250 British companies have "bought in" counselling services and the number of major providers has doubled to 15 in three years.

Miss Highley estimated that about 20 per cent of counsellors employed by programme providers were insufficiently qualified. The minimum qualification was the British Association of Counselling diploma which required a year's study.

About 12 per cent of counsellors had received virtually no training. Among those with no qualifications were former personnel officers and occupational health nurses.

Much of the advice provided concerned issues that would normally be dealt with by Citizens' Advice Bureaux, including queries on legal and financial matters. Only 22 per cent of the cases encountered in the "bought-in" programmes involved work-related issues, Miss Highley found in her study, which was sponsored by the Health and Safety Executive and carried out at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist).

The counselling programmes normally cost employers about pounds 25 per employee each year, but the price could be anywhere between pounds 15 and pounds 45. Typically the consultancies provided a "help-line" and up to eight individual face- to-face sessions. Where counsellors were inadequately trained, they were unlikely to get to the root of the problem. An employee who said he was having difficulties with his wife might fail to mention that long working hours had caused the original problem.

Miss Highley said: "The programmes work, but in a very limited way. Companies are bringing them in for the wrong reasons. Organisations should be aware of their limitations."