Commentary
Employee assistance (counselling) programmes are now operated by around 80% of the top 500 American companies and are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. A recent survey indicated that approaching 200 UK companies had such programmes, finding them of considerable value not only helping to solve problems, but also in improving workplace relationships generally. If nothing else the programmes should indicate that the employer cares about the welfare and long-term health of its workforce. Whilst the employer sets the programme up and provides information on how advice can be sourced (that is via a comprehensive communication of both problems and suggested alleviation), the process relies on the employee making the contact and acting on the advice. Buying an external resource with guarantees of confidentiality etc., should encourage employees to use the system with confidence that nothing will be relayed to the employer without their permission.

Internal Resource
Whilst it is entirely possible to provide an internally staffed employer-funded counselling service, this can pose problems - both of confidentiality and of a preference that the employer should not 'interfere' in personal affairs. If, despite assurances of a wish to help, the latter reaction is maintained, then no attempt should be made to force the employee to use the service as it is unlikely to achieve anything - indeed it could make the whole situation worse.

Patient and low key explanation of the impact such problems are having on the business and the employee's colleagues (rather than passive acceptance of the 'personal prying' allegation) may be the only way in which the logic of the interest can be rationalised.

Stress
Until recently there had been a steadily increasing number of stress claims most of which were settled out of court by the payment of large sums of compensation to employees 'injured' as a result of them being placed in stressful situations without support etc. In late 2001, however, four cases were considered by the Court of Appeal which rejected three of the claims and only allowed the fourth with 'some hesitation'. The comments made by the Court are set out in the STRESS section, however, one of their most valuable recommendations was that where an employer provided stress counselling (presumably on a free basis) to employees, the employer would be unlikely to be found liable for stress claims. Setting up such a service would seem to be a logical form of insurance against such claims. Providers of private medical cover, as well as liability insurers, increasingly offer such counselling services and full information and easy access should be provided to all employees.

Employers need to be proactive. If they suspect a person may be suffering from stress then they might take the initiative and suggest the employee attends counselling sessions. In the Barber v Somerset County Council case the House of Lords said that the 'overall test is still the conduct of the reasonable and prudent employer, taking positive thought for his workers in the light of what he knows or ought to know'.

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