Staff counselling.

Research into the effectiveness of staff counselling reveals that workplace support can have a striking and sustained effect for employees with workplace or personal difficulties.

Staff leave counselling with a far greater sense of well-being and much more able to cope with the demands of their working lives.

Jill Collins

A study into the effectiveness of staff counselling at the University of Cambridge has revealed that such services can make a significant and lasting improvement to the lives of people with work-related stress and other problems.

The study found that the well-being of University staff seeking help from its internal counselling service increased after a few weeks of support. On average, their well-being rose by more than 10 points on an index used by mental health professionals, to a level comparable with the national average. More than 70% of the 187 cases studied also recorded an upswing that was "clinically significant".

The results add to a growing body of evidence which points to the importance of workplace counselling services, at a time when harsh economic conditions and limited budgets mean that some organisations are questioning their worth. Similar results have emerged from past studies within the NHS, the Post Office, and local government.

Researchers behind the Cambridge study say that their findings demonstrate how even a relatively short burst of counselling can make a positive difference to the lives and productivity of staff who are suffering from problems like anxiety, stress, depression or relationship issues. On average, the participants had seven weekly counselling sessions, each lasting for 50 minutes.

Jill Collins, Senior Staff Counsellor at the University of Cambridge, said: "This study shows how important time-limited counselling can be for staff who have issues that are compromising their ability to work effectively. They leave with a far greater sense of well-being and much more able to cope with the demands of their working lives."

The research project was carried out by the University Staff Counselling Service team over the course of a 12 month period, from 1 August 2009 to 31 July 2010. Their report appears in the new issue of the academic journal, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research.

Well-being in the workplace is a significant, national issue. In 2010, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released statistics showing that, in 2008, an estimated 415,000 people in the UK believed that they were suffering from stress, depression, or anxiety made worse either by their current, or past, employment. Despite this, many employers still question whether it is worth investing in counselling services.

Against that backdrop, the Cambridge study sought to establish the effectiveness of the counselling offered to University staff. It asked two simple questions: Was the service making a difference to their well-being and, if so, was that difference likely to last?

The 187 staff seeking counselling who agreed to take part had their well-being tested at four different stages - once when they started treatment, once at the end, and then both three and six months later. These results were cross-referred with a small comparison group of University staff who had not used the service.

To measure well-being, the researchers used the Warwick and Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS). This scale, increasingly widely used by psychologists and mental health practitioners, measures well-being on a scale of one to five in each of 14 different categories. At each stage of the study, the participants were asked to use a WEMWBS survey to assess their own well-being.

Overall, six months after the counselling had ended, the well-being of the treatment group had improved so significantly that their scores were barely distinguishable from those of people who had not sought counselling. For the non-treatment, comparison group, the mean WEMWBS score was between 47.88 and 52.94 throughout the project – a statistic comparable for the national average. For those seeking treatment, the initial mean WEMWBS score was much lower, at 38.9, before treatment began. It then rose sharply after the treatment, and even six months later was above 46.

The team were awarded a Research Completion Grant by BACP Workplace, a division of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. This enabled them to employ an experienced statistician to analyse the data, thus ensuring the validity of the results. In Nov 2011 the Staff Counselling Team were awarded a BACP Excellence Award [Research] for this work.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice Chancellor, University of Cambridge, said: “I applaud the initiative taken by the Staff Counselling Service. The Staff Counselling team does an excellent job of supporting staff when work or personal issues arise. This is an important piece of practice-based evidence which supports the effectiveness of counselling provided in the workplace.”

Rick Hughes, Lead Advisor: Workplace at BACP added: “Throughout the UK, workplace counselling services are facing significant cuts and in many cases closure as organisations seek to reduce costs. Yet this research provides strong evidence of the positive contribution that counselling can make to employee health and wellbeing. If employees really are the most important resource within an organisation, then it is crucial that organisations fulfil their duty of care and make available to staff, a range of accessible counselling support interventions.”

Full copies of the report, Counselling in the workplace: How time-limited counselling can effect change in well-being, can be found at:

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