In the past, the discussion of mental health problems in the workplace was uncommon. For the most part, workers were expected to leave their personal struggles at home, bringing only their “professional” selves to work – no matter the impact on their health.
Today, however, things are changing. From Starbucks to Dell, companies are bringing mental health professionals into the workplace to offer in-house therapy for employees. With COVID-19 taking its toll on our wellbeing, a third of US employers with more than 5,000 employees said they would offer behavioural health counselling on-site in 2020, according to the .
It’s no secret that poor mental health is a growing problem in workplaces. From heavy workloads to toxic cultures, working conditions and environments can have a huge impact on wellbeing, with an estimated experiencing mental health problems at work. So should more companies offer psychological therapies to their employees?
“In principle I’m entirely in favour of increasing access to talking therapies, so in theory the idea of in-house services is a good idea,” says Dr Emma Taylor, a clinical psychologist based in London. “Not only might it make therapy available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it, it also sends a powerful message about the company valuing its employees mental health.”
Accessing support is still difficult for many, despite the growing number of people struggling with their mental health. NHS waiting lists are lengthy – in some cases, stretching on for many months – and in the US, employees may find mental health care isn’t included in their insurance coverage. With the ongoing pandemic taking its toll on mental wellbeing, opening up new avenues for workers to access care is a huge positive.
“Since the start of lockdown, I’ve worked with several companies who’ve been running in-house wellbeing seminars to support their employees’ mental health during this particularly stressful time, and I think that’s been a really positive thing,” she says.
Employers have embraced schemes like mental health first aid, in which volunteers are taught to recognise early signs and symptoms of common mental health problems, are informed about the services available, and learn how to listen in an empathetic, non-judgmental way. Yet these programmes have limitations, as those who volunteer are not trained professionals.
“I’ve done training for volunteer ‘mental health first aiders’ within workplaces, and I would prefer a system of paid, trained professionals to that way of doing things - if only to protect the wellbeing of the people who end up volunteering for these things and don’t always get appropriate support,” Taylor says.
However, in-house therapy poses some important potential problems. Counselling can be a tool for improving employee performance and ultimately retention, but in-house services run the risk of benefitting the employer more than the workers.
Without addressing problems that have a direct impact on worker mental health, such as a culture of overwork or bullying managers, therapy services risk being a kind of window dressing. Offering employees mental health benefits might look good on paper, but it is meaningless if these underlying problems go unresolved.
“As a therapist, I can’t imagine working within these organisations when I hear so many details about the toxic cultures there, and continuing to be employed by them to mop up the impacts of those cultures while the organisation changes nothing,” Taylor says.
Another issue is confidentiality. Therapy relies very heavily on creating a safe environment where a client can be entirely honest, whether that’s about things like drug or alcohol use, problems with a manager or dissatisfaction with work. If therapy was offered at work, clients may feel uncomfortable disclosing personal and private information – particularly if they’re worried about consequential disciplinary action.
The nature and quality of the therapy available and the amount of choice also poses a conundrum. “Companies who provide private health cover (that extends to talking therapies) give their employees agency to find a therapist who’s a really good fit for them, in terms of therapeutic approach, demographic characteristics, personal style and so on,” Taylor says.
Not every therapy is a good fit for every client, and the working relationship between therapist and client is essential if the therapy is to reap good results. If employers offer therapy, it’s likely to consist of just one or two therapists with a limited range of psychotherapeutic approaches.
These issues aside, therapy can be a good way to introduce people to the benefits of therapy and counselling. Helping people access mental health care, or being able to signpost them to further support, is essential if we’re ever to improve psychological health in the workplace.
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