Best behaviour: tackling employee stress the CBT way 

Dianne Hatton, PMI Health Group’s Registered General Nurse and Registered Mental Health Nurse, explains how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help support staff and save businesses money.

Stress and mental illness is responsible for more than half of all working days lost every year, according to research by the Health and Safety Executive.

So it is little wonder that efforts to improve employees’ mental wellbeing have been catapulted up the occupational health agenda over recent years.

With more people than ever calling in sick and quitting their jobs because of workplace stress, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has found its way into the workplace.

Not only is its use for tackling anxiety and depression supported by NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, clinical evidence suggests that better access to CBT can help reduce time spent off work due to ill health.

So what is CBT, and how can it help staff to handle stress?

CBT is a short-term therapy that helps individuals to change negative thought processes and behaviours. Rather than focusing on the causes of distress, it aims to relieve the symptoms of mental health by focusing on how problems are thought about, and how this can affect how patients feel, physically and emotionally.

Therapists will encourage troubled employees to talk about how they think about themselves, other people – work colleagues for example – and the world around them. They will also prompt them to think about how their actions affect their thoughts and feelings.

Positive thinking in practice...

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) uses the following example to explain this:

You have had a bad day, feel fed up, and so go out shopping. As you walk down the road, someone you know walks by and apparently ignores you.

  • Unhelpful thoughts such as ‘they ignored me - they don't like me’ result in you feeling low and rejected. You get stomach cramps, feel sick and decide to go home and avoid the person. 
  • Helpful thoughts such as ‘they look a bit wrapped up in themselves, I wonder if there's something wrong?’ mean that your emotional reaction is concern for the person. Rather than having negative feelings, you get in touch with them to make sure they are ok.

CBT tells us that when we’re feeling low we’re more likely to jump to unhelpful conclusions. We are encouraged to think and behave differently to improve how we feel.

For the estimated eight million people of working age, experiencing common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or sleep problems, CBT can be one of the most effective treatments. According to the RCP, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the most effective psychological treatment for moderate and severe depression and can also work alongside antidepressant medications.

How can employers offer CBT to staff?

With an increasing number of healthcare providers having added CBT to their product ranges, referrals can be offered to staff through a number of healthcare benefits such as PMI, income protection, EAPs or, in some cases, even cash plans.

Employees will, of course, first need to be assessed by a medical professional to determine whether or not CBT is suitable. Where appropriate, it will usually involve weekly or fortnightly face-to-face sessions with a therapist, lasting anywhere between six weeks to six months.

Many employees will remain at work during this period, while for others the short-term therapy will facilitate an earlier return to the workplace.

For businesses, CBT can, consequently, prove an extremely cost-effective way of reducing sickness absence or losing valued members of staff from a company’s workforce.

More information on CBT can be found on the NHS Choices, Mind and Royal College of Psychiatrists websites. For advice on how best to offer CBT to your staff, speak to one of our consultants on 01606 350 035.