Breathe Director Helen Jones discusses counselling in the workplace and the underlying aspects of mental health at work.
Content from BACP:
Wounded at work
BACP Workplace, October 2019, Issue 102
Are counsellors the antidote to toxic workplaces? Helen Jones makes the case for working with the underlying causes of ill-health at work.
If you see workplace clients, it’s likely that you’ll be pretty familiar with the term ‘the toxic workplace’, but I want to start by clarifying what it means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a toxic workplace as a workplace environment, (culture, work practices and/or workload), that is ‘extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful’ to its employees’, suppliers’ and/or stakeholders’, mental health and/or wellbeing.1 Based on this definition of a toxic workplace, many of us will have either experienced one ourselves or know someone who has worked in a workplace that had a detrimental effect on their mental health and wellbeing.
While employees and employers recognised many years ago that there is a responsibility for workplaces not to cause anyone physical harm, it is only comparatively recently that there has been recognition that this responsibility includes psychological harm. This arguably reflects the historic view of mental health being an individual’s issue, rather than a social/societal one. The focus on the physical aspect of employee health extends to the application of legislation regarding workplace health and safety, with the vast majority of historic action related to physical harm. Indeed, if you had asked many people 10 years ago about the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) work, we would probably have envisaged physical injuries and accidents being investigated. We would have expected guidance on workplace accidents, resulting in injuries such as musculoskeletal injury through risks such as falls, slips and trips and/or incorrect manual handling.
Health and Safety Executive
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) actually provides a wealth of information and research on mental health in the workplace.2 A specific focus of this is workplace stress, which HSE defines as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. HSE research has found six main causes of workplace stress:
- Demands – Employees may say that they are not able to cope with the demands of their jobs.
- Control – Employees may say that they are unable to control the way they do their work.
- Support – Employees may say that they don’t receive enough information and support.
- Relationships – Employees may say that they are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied.
- Role – Employees may say that they don’t fully understand their role and responsibilities.
- Change – Employees may say that they are not engaged when a business is undergoing change.2
Employees can and do play an active role in their workplace culture and have agency in some of the six key areas. However, there is a danger that the focus by employers is on the employee’s reaction to stressors rather than reducing the stressor itself.
The Employee Assistance Professionals Association (founded in 1998) cites HSE’s publication of the ‘Stress Management Standards’ in 2005 as fuelling the rapid expansion of employee assistance programmes (EAPs).3 As the number of EAPs increases, more counsellors are providing their services through links with these organisations. While this is positive for employees, who benefit from funded access to psychological therapies through their workplace EAP, the EAPs focus on the individual addressing their mental health, rather than a more systemic perspective.
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