Prioritizing employee mental health is important in the workplace. Many companies offer in-house therapy to their employees to ensure that they’re getting the care they need. The most common reason is to help them cope with their work-related stress. Therapists can also help with other issues, like improving communication skills, managing feelings, navigating conflicts with colleagues, and addressing personal emotional concerns.
However, is this truly enough and helpful for all employees? Let’s find out!
Who is an employee therapist and how do they help?
A therapist is a qualified professional who offers support and guidance to anyone who may be experiencing emotional, psychological or behavioural concerns, through empathy and using specific skills and techniques that they are trained in. A therapist also helps people understand the root cause of their problem and find ways to cope with it. Therapy can also be used as a space to grow as an individual and explore one’s personal values, strengths and priorities.
What issues do employees experience at the workplace?
Workplaces can be a challenging and stressful environment for employees. There are several factors that come into play, including long hours, demanding managers, poor work-life balance, along with personal, interpersonal and professional emotional issues. For example, there might be a toxic work culture that causes employees to feel marginalized or unappreciated. This may lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-confidence, or depression. Bullying at the workplace is another issue many struggle with as well.
If therapy helps with the above concerns, why shouldn’t an organization hire a full-time therapist?
Therapists either have their own respective private practices, or they work for/run a therapy center that offers the services of therapy to their clients. Most therapists see clients on a per-hour basis which can become quite expensive for a large organization, and that is mostly why organizations decide to hire a full-time therapist.
- It can’t stop at just a few therapists: When you hire a full-time therapist, it can be easy to forget to replace the roles/handholding they provide themselves in those private/center setups. The same way you have managers to guide your employees when they hit a tough spot, therapist’s in counselling centres also have seniors and peers to lean on to and hand hold them.
- You may drag the therapist into organization conflicts: Having the therapist be a full time team member at your organization implies that they’ll also be part of the day to day affairs of the organization either actively or passively. This can make it hard for the therapist to have an unbiased stance when it comes to supporting themselves and your employees.
- Work benefits: How do you offer work benefits to a therapist? While you may be able to offer them fair compensation, access to a stocked cafeteria, and even pensions/insurance, you may not be able to offer them a fair emotional workplace. Their personal need to socialize with their colleagues across departments may not be fulfilled if their colleagues are their clients.
- Proximity may be a challenge: While proximity to an on-site in-house therapist may sound like an advantage, it could deter an employee’s ability to open up about workplace issues. Especially if they feel the therapist is “close” to the manager or colleague they want to talk about in the session.
- You can’t hire ‘enough’ therapists: Therapy is a personal journey. It’s a journey of finding a therapist who understands (or has lived experience) of your context and aligns with your values. The kind of therapist an employee chooses to go to, may not be the same as the therapist their manager or colleague may connect with. It is a deeply personal choice. Hence, organizations may not be able to afford hiring as many therapists from diverse backgrounds.
- Performance reviews could get more challenging: How do you offer “performance” bonuses to an in-house therapist? It’s very easy to look at therapists as a “resource” within your organization that you need to “fully book-out”. While this may be something even counselling centers try to do, this would often lead to a toxic work culture for the therapist alone. Most therapists see 4-5 clients a day, with breaks in between.
- Ethical dilemmas: What if the team managing the finances and appraisals, is also a client to the therapist? What if the person you’re having a professional conflict with, is best friends with the therapist you’ve onboarded? Or what if they’re also a client to your therapist? Most therapists do not see friends, family and colleagues of their client, as it may result in a conflict of interest and deter the client from experiencing growth in therapy.
- Stalling the therapist’s growth: When you hire a therapist (or a group of therapists) in-house, you also end up deterring the professional growth and opportunity to upskill themselves that they would’ve gotten through peers either privately or through a counselling center.
- Peer support for your therapists: Therapists often have peer-supervisors to hand hold them through the therapy process. This may be difficult for them to access in an employee counselling set-up.
- Your therapist cannot fix work culture issues within the organization: Sometimes the best way to help you is from the outside. Therapists may not be able to address systemic, work culture related issues that could be a major factor in impacting your employees’ stress levels, burnout and general mental health. These issues are best addressed through group interventions and larger conversations at each level within the organization, especially with leadership.
- Referring out of the organization: Sometimes, the client-therapist relationship may not work out and in such a case, a therapist would refer the client to someone else in their network who could be of help. This can be due to heightened emotional concerns, or even due to just a value mismatch. Hiring a full-time therapist in your organization could be a barrier to this process, in case the working relationship falls through between the therapist and any one of the employee clients.
What about hiring a consultant who visits the organization on a regular basis?
Many organizations tie up with mental health companies to hire a therapist on a consultancy basis. These therapists would offer counselling services to employees either virtually or physically in the organization’s workplace, and would be billed as an external “consultant” to the organization.
Because the therapist will not be a full time employee, this may resolve some ethical dilemmas of the conflict in the therapist’s role that we highlighted earlier. However, largely the issues are similar and still remain. The therapist your manager may resonate with and find most value in, need not be the same therapist your employees resonate with. Not finding a therapist whose background or approach you resonate with is one of the biggest deterrents to experiencing growth in therapy.
How do I overcome these challenges?
While there are organizations that are trying to overcome the challenges we’ve mentioned above, you may have noticed how solving some of them may be a -full time job- in themselves. So what can you do? We passionately believe that there’s no better alternative than:
- Empowering your employees with mental health workshops (that offer them knowledge on how to choose a therapist, prioritize their mental health, etc)
- Offering them reimbursements for the therapists they choose outside of your organization. This gives each employee the agency and choice to make decisions for their personal mental health care in a way that they see fit.
- Offering them flexible working hours when they’re seeking therapy.
- Creating a culture where you prioritize solving the internal systemic problems of work culture that put an employee’s mental health in distress in the first place.
None of these can happen overnight, but you’re definitely not alone in figuring this out. Mental health is a complex, nuanced experience and the first step to supporting employees with this is understanding that we cannot treat therapy as a one-size-fits-all approach or ‘a magic pill’ that resolves everybody’s concerns. Recognize that as an organization you can provide support resources, a safe environment and guidance for your employees to be open about their mental health, while at the same time providing them with the autonomy and agency to make their own choices to care for themselves.