Counselling In The Workplace

A Survivors Tale

This is written form the perspective of someone now fully recovered and coping mostly successfully with life. It is important to state this at the outset to demonstrate that it is possible to overcome your difficulties, even those caused by the very bodies supposed to be helping you.

The workplace is no place for therapy. The workplace is for work, for social contact, for earning money and for gaining a sense of personal achievement, of self-worth.

Unfortunately there is also workplace stress and conflict, both of which are inevitable when humans are forced together for long periods of time each day. Coupled with the increasing demands for greater productivity and higher profits the end result is that some individuals have difficulties in adjusting to the environment.

Employers are increasingly conscious of the compensation culture and are wary of being sued. There have been several high profile cases involving Local Authorities at Industrial Tribunal over the last few years. In each of these cases the sums involved were many £1000s. Similar cases in private sector employers and the City have involved even more substantial amounts of moolah.

If there’s one thing your boss doesn’t want to lose it is the company profits- or the Council Taxpayer’s cash. So in order to stem the tide of claims many employers offer some kind of workplace counselling or therapy, often totally inappropriately.

An employee reporting symptoms of stress should lead to a responsible employer taking a look at the job and any change in expectations before rushing the person off for specialist attention.

Because of the big investment we all make in our work it is important that the situation is handled properly for the individual’s benefit.

Most people need their job for the money as well as their self-esteem. It is vital that the employee is not made to feel a failure in this crucial area: misplaced counselling or therapy can feed negative feelings, thereby increasing demotivation and lack of productivity.

Focussing on the individual’s apparent inability to manage what everyone else can apparently cope with encourages that person to see them self at best as the square peg in the round hole, at worst a complete failure who has wasted their life. It promotes the idea of the individual as unwell, different and apart, when energy should be used in promoting true individual empowerment by giving knowledge and support to make changes.

I have been in this position and ended up being told by a Welfare Officer that I should “just leave” and this in the context that she “had only ever said this once before in over ten years”’. This set up a negative expectation in my mind and added to my feelings of isolation; in fact the problem was that the brand new job I had been appointed to do had been created to fulfil a political agenda and was in reality unnecessary and unworkable. However no-one likes to admit they’ve made a terrible expensive mistake and it was obviously easier to change me than change the organisation!

After some sessions with the Welfare Officer, I was asked if I would do some work with a trainee counsellor. Somehow this was supposed to benefit my situation and in my eagerness to do something positive I agreed. This was ultimately beneficial work-but not for me!

Acknowledging that students have to learn is one thing, but being an experimental animal is quite another. Many people who have experienced bad therapy will be familiar with the feeling of having your innermost thoughts and emotions messed around with, probably to no positive effect.

This became so unrelated to the workplace it was truly painful. We tried lots of different techniques in a pick’n’mix style and delved and prodded into the unlit areas of my psyche. Unfortunately the counsellor’s lack of experience meant that she was unable to frame some questions skilfully enough to help me articulate my thoughts satisfactorily, which added to my frustration:if my counsellor doesn’t understand me there’s no hope!

These sessions were dictated by the academic year and as others have acknowledged, there was not much flexibility in appointment time or duration. You have to be bonkers by the hour once a week with little time to review how the previous session reverberated through the week. Some things dredged up were very painful and dramatic, producing unexpected reactions- although how this could make me feel more comfortable in the workplace is highly debatable.

This kind of therapy is totally inappropriate to the office setting and is of dubious value in the context of sorting out employment difficulties.

There was no satisfactory conclusion for me when the training placement ended: I was just glad to stop, although it did not ‘finish’ for me for a long time.

Did it help my career? No: my negative expectations had been raised and I could not settle until the situation to leave presented itself- much to my detriment in every way, as it turned out.

Did it benefit me personally? No: I was very confused and had some very difficult personal things to work through over a long period.

Did things improve? Eventually, but it was a long time coming and managed without any further ‘professional’ involvement- the hard way!

My original problem was clouded by the new problem caused by the original so called solution!

The most beneficial workplace counselling in my experience is straightforward career counselling with a personnel consultant. This is far more positive: have you thought of this? Do you like the sound of that? You’re probably good at this new type of work-shall we find out more? Good practical, focussed stuff that builds on your strengths and encourages a wider perspective; it’s not the individual who’s sick- if anything it’s the system! This type of counselling helps the person take control of their own life- and don’t forget we are talking about the work environment here- and move on.

Workers do not benefit from being seen as sick failures; colleagues resent covering for ‘sick’ individuals and employers don’t benefit from demotivated ‘sick’ people who sue them.

Dabbling around in people’s heads is no solution to workplace problems; blaming individuals for poor employment practices and bad management is the real sickness.

A survivor