Worker therapy services prove good business: Free advice lines for employees in need of counselling are helping employers and their staff. Celia Hall reports

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The Independent Online
A SECRET service is operating quietly in Britain, available to its members via a special telephone number, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

Some 100,000 employees and their families have received the coded numbers which identify them to the dedicated switchboards in Birmingham and Hinckley, Leicestershire. They may use these numbers whenever they face an emergency.

This service provides employees with free, confidential, professional advice on almost any subject in their private or working lives, from promotion or debt to marital breakdown or bereavement - paid for by their employer.

For about pounds 20 per person per year the service offers unlimited telephone advice by trained counsellors and, if needed, up to eight face-to-face sessions with counsellors or psychologists.

The employer will never know which employee has made a call, but analysis of demand gives the employer information on departments where stress and strain are being felt - so that something can be done about it.

This 'Stresscare Programme' is a commercial initiative created through an unusual collaboration between Psychology at Work, the commercial arm of the Institute of Psychiatry; the Maudsley Hospital, Denmark Hill, south London; and CareAssist, a telephone advice service which is a member of the Royal Insurance Group of companies. The programme is one of several in the UK and is known as an employee assistance programme (EAP). It is special because of its association with the Institute and the Maudsley, world famous for their psychological practice and research, and the additional face- to-face service.

In Britain EAPs are a fast growing employee 'perk', but in North America they are well established. They cost only about a tenth of the price of private health insurance.

It is still too soon to find hard data on the benefits but the idea is that a confident workforce is worth more than one that is ridden with anxiety and sickness. In the US they estimate that every dollars 1 spent on an EAP is worth dollars 6 saved in terms of a reduction in time off and healthcare costs.

Geoffrey Gray, Professor of Psychology at the Maudsley, said he had to be certain that the stress counsellors were 'not infected with crazy brands of psychotherapy; but I was quickly reassured'.

Psychologists from the hospital oversee the work of the telephone counsellors and about 200 Maudsley or Institute trained therapists provide the confidential face-to-face service. 'There is plenty of evidence that people who are depressed or anxious work less well and that they may be more likely to pick up viruses. The aim is really to pick up difficulties before they lead to more serious psychological problems,' Professor Gray said.

One success was with a man who had a fear of lifts and who had been promoted - which meant his new office was on a high floor. 'He had been hiding this problem for years. The beauty of an EAP is that it is so easy for an employee to get help.'

In Britain, where therapy is still seen as something slightly dubious, the instant 'available when you need it' service is well used. Companies who have been quick to see the benefits of an EAP include the Shell International Petroleum Company, which already had its own counsellor. 'It is early days but we are finding the additional resources valuable for our employees,' a spokesman said.

Professor Gray started the commercial company Psychology at Work during the 1980s and initially marketed psychological questionnaires and techniques for company recruitment.

While he investigated EAPs there seemed to be no British market. But a marked increase in the acceptance of 'therapy' in the past three years had made it a good commercial field, he said.

He said that primarily they offer 'cognitive' psychology in which people are helped to change they way they think about their behaviour rather than first trying to change the behaviour itself.