Counselling at work

Counselling is used in a variety of ways to support employees in solving their problems. Different types of counselling are available and can form part of the disciplinary process.

Why you might need counselling

If your work is suffering for personal reasons, you may need counselling to put things right. Counselling can be an informal way of sorting out problems before they become disciplinary issues.

Your employer might provide a counselling service, but there's no law to say they must.

You don't have to agree to counselling, but if your employer offers it, consider whether this would be better than a disciplinary process.

 Disciplinary counselling

This kind of counselling is usually a one-off interview dealing with lower standards of behaviour or performance than are expected at work. There are often reasons why this is happening and the counselling interview should aim to find out what they are and how to deal with them. For example, being absent from work may be the result of bullying.

Disciplinary counselling tries to bring an end to poor performance without taking disciplinary action. At a counselling interview you should be told what improvement is expected and how long your performance will be under review for. This might sometimes be called an 'informal warning' but does not form part of a disciplinary procedure.

You should also be told when formal disciplinary proceedings might start if there's no improvement.

A disciplinary counselling interview should not turn into a formal disciplinary hearing. If it does, you should make it clear that you want the meeting to end and that a proper disciplinary hearing arranged so that you have the chance to exercise your right to have a work colleague, or an employee representative, with you.

Personal counselling

This happens when your physical or mental health is affected by personal problems that may require help or advice. The main issues for which people ask for personal counselling, or are offered it at work are:

A good employer will promote good health in the workplace and large organisations may have full-scale occupational health departments. Other organisations might offer one or more of the following:

  • help with giving up smoking, alcohol or drugs
  • stress counselling
  • relaxation classes
  • employee assistance programmes

Counselling for any problem should be confidential and carried out by someone suitably qualified. If your employer doesn't have one in-house, they may arrange for you to see an outside expert. You might need time off work for this and your employer should be sympathetic about it. Whether this time is paid or unpaid will be up to them.

Stress management

Workplace stress is widespread. Employers have legal duties to take care of the safety of their employees and this includes managing stress. The Health and Safety Executive has also provided employers with information and management standards on dealing with stress at work.

If you're suffering from stress, or think you are, there may be a counsellor you can see at work. If not, you may be sent to an independent counselling service as part of an employee assistance programme.

Drugs and alcohol

If you have problems with drugs or alcohol, your employer may offer help. This might involve giving you time off to attend counselling during working hours or perhaps a period of leave so you can get treatment.

Your employer may have a policy on drugs and alcohol as part of your terms and conditions of employment.

If you don't seek help and your problems affect your work, your employer may have reason to dismiss you.

Counselling and disability

If you're suffering from depression or anxiety, it may be classed as a disability. Under disability discrimination law, employers are expected to treat workers with disabilities sympathetically when it comes to time off for medical treatment, which includes counselling.

Some organisations treat drug or alcohol dependence as an illness and have policies aimed at rehabilitation.

Dependence on drugs or alcohol, however, doesn't give you the same rights as a disabled person.

Where you can get help

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) and Advice NI offer free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland.

If you're a member of a trade union you can get help advice and support from them.

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