Law guide: Workplace

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Counselling at work

Counselling at work

Counselling is used in a variety of ways to support employees in solving their problems. Find out about the types of counselling available and how counselling works as part of the disciplinary process.

Why might you 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.

Although you don't have to agree to counselling if your employer offers it, consider whether this would be better than facing disciplinary issues at work.

What types of counselling are there?

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. Often there are 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 should be arranged so that you have the chance to exercise your right to have a work colleague or an employee representative there with you.

Personal counselling

This happens when you have personal problems and need advice or support. The problem may be affecting your physical or mental health.

The main problems for which people ask for or are offered personal counselling at work are:

  • Stress
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Depression
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse

A good employer will promote good health in the workplace. 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 your time off 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, including counselling.

Some organisations treat drug or alcohol dependence as an illness and have policies aimed at rehabilitation. But dependence on drugs or alcohol doesn't give you the same rights as a disabled person.

Where to get help

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

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