Over the last few years, workplace counselling has been on the rise.
In a society which increasingly prioritises wellbeing, companies have had to quickly play catch up to not only the developing status-quo, but to attract and retain valued team members.
As employers expect more from their people; higher-level qualifications, more experience, a consistently positive attitude, agreeability to take on additional responsibilities, unpaid hours and more – employees expect something back. In the same way expectations that companies place on their employees can go beyond their standard 9-5 and monthly paycheck, this ‘something back’ that employees want in return does too.
This can be as simple as Christmas parties, flexible working and opportunities to volunteer. Occasionally companies go further, seeking a reputation for being a progressive or even “fun” employer – bring your dog to work, pool tables, beer fridges and go-karting away days. In some cases they offer onsite massage, farmers markets and lip-sync battles.
To many, this sounds great and would go some way to perhaps making work feel a bit less like work, or helping to alleviate stress. However, no amount of fun perks can replace professional and direct emotional support and that’s where employee counselling comes in.
Rarely discussed openly in the office between staff, many companies do offer some form of employee support intervention and this is commonly in the form of counselling. In this case, the employer will have a pre-selected organisation on hand to provide independent and confidential support that is free to the employee.
This is unsurprising as it is becoming widely accepted that difficulties with mental health and/or our personal lives have a negative impact on work performance. Employers stand to benefit by investing in workplace counselling, as by reducing absence rates by as much as 50%, it proves cost-effective and increases productivity. Employees stand to benefit as workplace counselling increases employee’s wellbeing, positivity and feelings of security at work.
Unfortunately, due to the private and confidential nature of counselling, it is often not at the forefront of people’s minds. In many companies, support services are not widely advertised, meaning employees only find out about it if they feel comfortable enough to confide in senior management about their personal life or mental health.
This creates a situation where people are already in significant distress by the time they seek support. Their personal life and mental health has to have intruded upon their work life negatively in order to access support. Alternatively, specific workplace issues must inherently prompt intervention, such as workplace bullying. In this case, it is likely to have negatively impacted that person for quite some time.
It’s important to recognise that whilst workplace counselling is increasing for many reasons, it is in part due to the demand of such services. Rising pressures on people at work, relationship difficulties and a nationally recognised increase in mental health problems, among other factors, mean more people need additional support.
Covid-19 & Work
This is a situation that has been significantly exacerbated by Coronavirus.
Everyone has been affected by the recent situation in a variety of ways, but when it comes to work and wellbeing, one aspect is becoming increasingly prevalent – the blurring of personal and work life is inevitable.
Although there is a developing and more progressive discourse emerging that appreciates the impact of our personal lives on work, Covid-19 has accelerated this, creating a current reality that is hard to ignore.
This relationship between the personal and the professional is happening in many ways and at least 20 million of us are feeling it. The dramatic increase in working from home due to lockdown has quite literally inserted the professional into people’s personal lives – as of April 2020, nearly 50% of people found their desk now sits in their home.
How, where and when do people switch off and navigate the separation of the two? For much of the time, they have not been able to blow off steam in the gym, see a film or visit friends. For those with young children, they’ve had to balance parent and professional, mitigating distractions and juggling the daily routine. For those in shared accommodation, busy homes or small flats – they directly lose part of their home space to work. It is unsurprising 1 in 5 people find working from home difficult.
In addition, unprecedented times have called for difficult decisions for companies and managers – resulting in loss that impacts employees. Companies furloughed an average of 21% of their teams, leaving millions of people out of their expected routine and with a decreased income. Whilst some may have thrived under the circumstances, enjoying the new freedoms from their home-desk, this separation has also caused feelings isolation, loss and anxieties about job security or returning to work. For those that face redundancy or have been made redundant, those anxieties become their reality.
For the remaining team members – the pressure has piled on. They have had to adapt to changing job roles in an unstable landscape, take on additional responsibilities, learn new skills quickly and fill the shoes of their furloughed or redundant colleagues. These members of staff and those returning from furlough are feeling the impact of their relationship to work as they face adapting to new ways of working and negotiating workplace relationships with those around them.
When you begin to consider the personal affects of Covid-19, the interplay of these difficulties can be become complex and overwhelming. Overall mental wellbeing has been on the decline anyway, but since Covid-19, nearly 50% of people reported an increase in anxiety and 37.4% say their wellbeing has been affected.
People have faced anything from tragedy such as the loss of loved ones, worsened in many cases by not being able to visit hospitals or attend funerals, to isolation when living alone and anxiety about the future. The pressures have increased alongside responsibilities such as home schooling, cohabiting with others or caring for sick or vulnerable relatives.
For some, being stuck indoors and having limitations on their time and where they can go has meant that experiences essential for our mental and emotional wellbeing have disappeared. Laughter over a shared meal, seeing a favourite band or film, taking a walk without thinking about health concerns or generally interacting in and with the world has been restricted or prohibited entirely. For others, the impact is more immediate and alarming if their home is not a safe place. When lockdown began, calls to the National Domestic Violence Helpline increased by 25% and visits to their website increased by 150%.
Overall, Covid-19 has decreased people’s safety, health and happiness by a long way.
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
With the blurring of the work and the personal, companies not only have a responsibility to address this, but an opportunity to. They are well placed to facilitate supportive environments for their teams – either providing direct counselling or signposting to reputable organisations. For many people, receiving support from a professional counsellor will be their only “me” time and essential for their emotional resilience.
Of course, companies have taken a hit, with some (like charities) unfortunately not surviving through it. Finances can be and will be incredibly tight and it is in these cases that the “added perks” of services such as counselling are sadly the first to go, at a time when they are the most needed.
For companies, large and small, who are having to make difficult decisions but will survive through this, their success and sustainability will correlate with the skills, abilities and mental wellbeing of their teams. To survive and subsequently recover, companies will need teams who have a healthy relationship with work, can adapt quickly and have higher levels of general wellbeing.
It is also a time to reconsider company culture and what kind of environment you wish to create for your team. Your hand has been forced and so has your employees, neither can claim the personal and professional lines are not blurred, neither can safely assume this won’t have a lasting impact. Ask yourself – are we an open company? What is our duty of care? Do our employees feel comfortable asking for support? Do our colleagues support one another? Are our policies inclusive and caring? Do they prioritise wellbeing? There are many ways you can create a safer and more compassionate culture without spending a penny.
When it comes to counselling, companies have the opportunity, as this service is tax exempt to provide support free of charge to employees, likely recovering the costs in increased productivity and reduced absence and sick leave. Alternatively, discounted counselling to support their teams by the company covering some of the cost could be negotiated.
This support does not simply have to be restricted to certain areas of the organisation either – everyone can benefit, including senior managers and the decision makers. It’s not just about your company’s survival or your team’s wellbeing, it’s about your wellbeing too.
Never has it been more needed, never has it been more important.
If you want to take action, as a leading North West relationships organisation with nearly 40 years’ experience in counselling and wellbeing, we can help.