When staff at an electronics company in north London arrived for work one Monday last month, they were greeted not by their boss but by a counsellor. "It turned out our boss had committed suicide over the weekend," says an employee.

When staff at an electronics company in north London arrived for work one Monday last month, they were greeted not by their boss but by a counsellor. "It turned out our boss had committed suicide over the weekend," says an employee.

"But even though the grief in the office was overwhelming, none of us felt comfortable about the idea of a group counselling session." Reluctantly, however, they agreed. "Am I glad now?" says the employee. "The counsellor made us realise we were not alone in our distress and taught us how to use each other as a means of support."

Research increasingly highlights the value of prompt on-site counselling to staff who have suffered a stressful or traumatic experience. "And not just in instances involving death," says Richard Hopkins, managing director of Dovedale Counselling.

"Employers are recognising that teams of staff can benefit from psychological help as a result of situations like an accident at work, the threat of violence from a client or customer, or the discovery that a colleague is HIV positive."

Some companies even offer immediate counselling after the announcement of a merger or takeover.

"Employee assistance programmes" - which became common in the mid-1990s as a way of helping staff deal with any problem that may affect them at work - are now expanding to include "critical incident debriefing", according to the Employee Assistance Professional Association.

"Typical reactions to traumatic experiences of all kinds include depression, fear, headaches, tremors, lack of concentration and flashbacks," claims trauma counsellor Thelma Williams.

"These responses are quite normal and often resolve themselves in a few days. But when sufferers fail to acknowledge their emotions about the event, the symptoms are in danger of being heightened or prolonged. That's where we come in to provide a caring framework in which staff can make sense of their feelings."

Ms Williams claims that for one woman she recently counselled, the experience of being held at gunpoint at work left her feeling particularly confused. "Through debriefing, she realised it had awakened feelings of when she had been raped some years earlier."

However, evidence is emerging that trauma counselling may not always be beneficial. "Some employers consider it a quick-fix or, worse still, a way to prevent a fall in productivity," says occupational psychologist Alan Myers. "But there is no guarantee of fast results when it comes to feelings.

Another concern arises from companies where one-to-one counselling is not offered beyond the initial session. Arousing powerful emotions only to leave them with no further help can leave employees in danger of being even more traumatised than when they started out."

Peter Allen of the Richmond Fellowship, which offers an accredited course in some forms of trauma counselling, says: "There is a danger that the more counsellors who are required in the workplace, the more opportunity there is for cowboys to earn a quick buck. Without adequate training, trauma counsellors' actions can have severe consequences."

In addition, a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Professor Richard Mayou and colleagues from the Warneford Hospital in Oxford found that very early exposure to the memory of a traumatic event may interfere with the normal cognitive process that leads to recovery. Professor Mayou's results are the first to claim that it may be not just ineffective but harmful.

Stephen Galliano, clinical director of the employee assistance programme ICAS, says: "It's true that some staff are not ready to resolve their feelings about an experience immediately after the event. In fact, it's for that very reason that many models involve waiting several hours or even days after the event before making counselling available."

He adds that employees who appear to be unfazed by a traumatic event, claiming they need no help, may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in the future. That's why, he claims, it is foolish to rule out the option of trauma counselling altogether.

"Instead, the answer is to ensure that companies only use professional counsellors; that employers fully understand re- covery takes time; that de-briefing is never mandatory; and that follow-up counselling on a one-to-one basis is available at any time."

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