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Corporate counselling

The rise of work-related therapy is a manipulative management strategy, says Bruce Charlton MD

One of the most striking aspects of the rise in counselling has been the extent to which it has been fuelled not by therapeutic demand, but by managerial diktat. Large numbers of counsellors are employed by private businesses or public sector bureaucracies and deployed on corporate tasks. It is implausible that managers would be diverting significant resources into counselling primarily for the good of their employees. Indeed, corporate counselling turns out to have nothing to do with personal development and everything to do with managerial manipulation.

The corporate use of psychotherapy could best be described as manipulative in the sense that it is intended to shape the behaviour of employees in a predetermined fashion. A personal example. I used to work in a large health organisation which was instructed to shed half of its staff. The managers called selected employees to an interview at which they were given the sack, asked to clear their desks immediately, escorted from the building - and offered counselling.

The sequence combined clinical ruthlessness with an explicit show of compassion for the consequences of this insensitivity. It was reminiscent of the scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now in which US attack-helicopters napalm Vietnamese civilians, immediately following which a fleet of air ambulances arrive to apply high-tech first aid.

Media reports suggest that mandatory counselling is frequently used by disciplinary bodies as a punishment for misbehaviour. I have seen it myself. Following a trivial incident, in which I moved some furniture from one end of a lounge bar to another, I got into a bizarre argument with the publican which culminated in our party being escorted from the premises by two bemused police constables. I wrote a letter of complaint to the brewery who apologised, and told me that the manager had been 'sent for counselling'. Presumably this was not for his benefit.

Counselling is sometimes imposed as a precondition for access to information or resources, and is rightly interpreted by the public as a deterrent rather than a service. An AIDS clinic which advertised HIV testing 'without counselling' was more popular than those clinics which 'offered' counselling. People instinctively recognise mandatory confession as a devious control mechanism - they see straight through the pseudo-compassion to the power games beneath.

The symbiotic relationship between managers and counsellors may seem surprising considering that the manager's espoused goal is 'efficiency' of the organisation - especially given the lack of evidence for any specific therapeutic benefit or trainable effectiveness of counselling. But managers are not interested in therapeutic effectiveness - and counselling is a powerful tool for the engineering of consent.

Instituting a confessional mode of psychotherapy is a way of diffusing potential conflict by shifting the agenda away from the organisation and on to the individual; away from managerial decisions and on to the employee's psychological response to these decisions. For example, workers who are being sacked have a range of possible responses. They might get angry and ask difficult questions like 'why are productive workers being sacked while personnel managers like you still have a job?'. They might even refuse to leave the building or organise a strike.

The very act of engaging in counselling shifts the focus of attention away from these unpleasant possibilities and on to questions of individual adjustment. The redundant worker is encouraged to discuss how he can be helped to find another job, how to prepare a curriculum vitae, how he will adjust to unemployment, how to maintain his self-esteem, and so on. He does not discuss whether he needed to be sacked in the first place, or ways in which he might challenge or reverse the decision, or strategies for getting extra compensation.

Implicitly, corporate counselling sees organisational conflict as a matter of coping with a decision as a fait accompli, rather than examining the assumptions and logistics of the organisation's decision-making processes.

So corporate counselling requires no conspiracy between managers and therapists - the activity is immediately and mutually beneficial to both parties. And - given the historical roots of psychotherapy in 'personal development' and 'empowerment' - the collaboration is forged with a clear conscience. Provision of counselling is advertised as self-evidently generous, compassionate, altruistic. 'Surely', they say, 'talking things through with a trained expert must be a good thing'. Good for whom?

Counselling is a resource, resources are finite, and when resources are deployed on one thing they are not available for another. Corporate counselling involves redirection of resources away from productive use. An hour of redundancy counselling will cost a week's salary for low-paid workers who would almost certainly prefer the cash in their hands. But the cash is not on offer - only the counselling.

Most people prefer higher wages and more jobs to bogus 'therapy'. But those at the receiving end of corporate counselling seldom get the opportunity to choose. It is the compulsory 'pep talk' or nothing. 'Nothing' would be preferable.

Bruce Charlton is a lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999

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