Our HR Lessons Learned: 7 Things To Consider When Launching Psychological Counselling for Employees

17 June 2020
By Hiie-Liin Tamm, HR Generalist
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Hiie-Liin Tamm

Our work at Playtech is highly dynamic, competitive and constantly full of challenges, and may therefore sometimes cause more stress than we would like it to.

As our employees are our source of success and are to be thanked for all our achievements throughout our history spanning two decades, two years ago we decided to strategically focus on addressing mental health topics in our organizational culture. One of the most important pillars of the Mental Wellness Program we started designing was to launch a free psychological counselling service system for our employees.

Studies have proved that people with higher resilience have better health and are less endangered by work-related stress and burnout. Therefore, our goal was to do our very best to increase the psychological resilience of our team and secure their mental wellbeing.

Now, after experimenting with the psychological counselling service for the first year, we can share some of our learning points during the process of planning and developing the best-suited system for Playtech Estonia employees.

#1: An inhouse psychologist or an outsourced service?

The first dilemma we faced was to decide if we want to have a psychologist at the office, coming here regularly or if we should partner up with a health clinic, where our people could go by themselves.

While talking to different experts, they brought our attention to the fact that it is crucial for the health specialist to have a good connection with the patient. As all people are different and have different problems, it’s better to have several psychologists to choose from. Having only one psychologist at the office would limit the selection. Also, for some employees, visiting the psychologist at the office might be too public and noticeable.

Our Mental Wellness Program provides workshops addressing various wellbeing topics

Besides that, there were the options to use an online counselling service or give employees the possibility to choose the clinic to attend themselves. For a starting point, limiting the options to online counselling only didn’t seem enough, as many people still prefer face-to-face meetings and open up only in one-on-one discussions held eye to eye.

Based on these considerations, a decision was made that providing the psychologist service should take place outside the office and we would like to cooperate with several professional clinics who could leverage the professional psychologist service they offer by providing communication and suggestions related to the process.

This led us to the next main questions: how should we choose the best clinic(s) to partner up with?

#2: How do you know which professional service partner is the one for you?

Before choosing the partner, we met with representatives of six different health clinics in Estonia. As we had no previous experience with psychologists and their services, all this was a bit confusing at first.

Based on long conversations and many e-mails, we finally decided to partner up with Confido Private Medical Clinic in Tallinn and Katriito Counselling & Psychotherapy Centre in Tartu. Both of them had a decent amount of experience with business clients, and have only highly qualified specialists working for them. In other words, we were simply fascinated by their professionalism and the good atmosphere gave us confidence that our cooperation would run smoothly.

We learned it’s important to be aware that some service providers use counselling staff who have no formal qualifications and often also possess limited experience. Anyone can call themselves a counsellor as the issue is currently ambiguously regulated.

If you are new to the world of psychological services and want to build a working counselling system, it’s very important to prepare yourself, analyse every little detail and answer you want to know about. From our experience, some of the topics and questions you should definitely consider are:

  • Previous experience in working with big companies and service set-up systems they have used with them
  • Average length of the waiting time and priority lists for their corporate clients
  • Location and the price of the service
  • Session booking systems and cancellation options
  • Keeping records of the employees’ session amounts
  • Background of the psychologists (clinical or not clinical)
  • Services that they offer and that you would like to make available for your employees
  • Billing and taxation of the service
  • Confidentiality and what information we as an employer will receive from the service provider
  • Possibility to offer the service in English or other languages
  • The possibility of online sessions

All in all, the most important thing when preparing to meet potential partners is to be prepared and ask a lot of questions. It is definitely a benefit if the clinic has a previous experience with other corporate clients, as then they are able to draw your attention to the possible faults in your assumptions or provide their recommendations on how to build the best system and communication plan, give predictions on attendance and usage of the service.

Next, it was time to dive into details of how the system would be set up.

#3: Fixed amount of sessions vs a flexible no-limit approach?

While designing the best set-up of the service to use, we considered various approaches. For example, the choices included a fixed amount of counselling sessions per person, a fixed number of sessions per person per year, a flexible amount and number of sessions depending on the needs of the specific employee, etc.

After discussing the issue with potential partners, we decided to go with the system in which Playtech compensates up to 5 psychologist’s or clinical psychologist’s sessions per person in one calendar year provided by our partners. This way, the system was easy to follow to all parties as well as gave us a good base for communicating it to our team in a concrete and understandable way.

We started with the 5 sessions limit based on the suggestion of our partners. In their opinion, this is an optimal amount that already provides a noticeable change in the patient’s concerns. Of course, we might review the number over the years, and if needed, we are probably ready to increase it. But at least we had a reasonable starting point.

After we decided on the basic principles, we started digging into the services that mental wellness clinics offer, and we concluded it is much wider than we imagined. First, we recommend to try to understand what are the options and then make straightforward agreements with the partner about the services that the employees may choose from. There might also be a big price difference in the services offered.

We decided that Playtech employees can use psychologist’s and clinical psychologist’s counselling services, but all the other therapies (such as psychiatrist’s counselling, cognitive-behavioural therapy or family therapy) are not included for now. The reason for excluding those was the need to draw a concrete line between the options that the employees can use, and the fact that therapies other than psychologist’s counselling probably require more sessions and a longer treatment.

An advantage for us is that at Playtech we have an employee benefits program called the Fish Funds that employees can also use for compensating health-related costs and medical treatments. Therefore, it’s possible for them to continue with other therapies later on as well, if needed. Once again, we might decide differently at some point and include more services based on the suggestions of our partners over time, but this is what we started with.

#4: Confidentiality: how can we keep records of a confidential service?

Like mentioned before, one supporting factor for preferring a psychological service outside the office was to provide more confidence to the employees that they can stay anonymous and everything they share with the psychologist remains confidential no matter what. Still, in the beginning, one key point we were struggling with was to find a system for managing HR’s involvedness in the whole process from booking the session to counting the sessions and managing the budget for the service.

One of the options required the employee to first turn to the team lead or HR, who explains the system and deals with the booking. However, finally we all agreed that this is not the most sensible option, and there should be as few contact persons and HR specialists involved in the system as possible. In this way, the chances are higher that people who actually need help dare to seek it.

Therefore, we created the system in such a way that employees can find our partner details from our intranet and for booking a session, they contact the clinic themselves and show their Playtech employee card at the clinic. The clinic keeps records of how many sessions each employee has used.

From Playtech’s HR side, there is only one contact person, who receives a list with employees that attended sessions and separately a bill for finance without names on a monthly basis. The clinic always takes extra time to explain the employee that his/her information is confidential and will not be shared with the employer in any way. Also, we have drawn a lot of attention to the confidentiality factor in our internal communication about the launch and availability of the psychologist service for our team.

Once a year, our partners send us a summary of the main broad issues or problematic areas they have noticed during the sessions. From the pilot year of providing the service, we know that the topics range from work-related stress, behavioural and motivational matters to relationship issues or sleeping anxieties. This provides us useful information on how we can support our employees even more within our entire Mental Wellness Program.

So far, this kind of system seems to work well for both sides and we try to keep our involvement as small as possible.

#5: Usage of the service: will they flock to clinic or will we need to urge them to go?

Like in business overall, in HR, we need to plan all our costs for the whole year and strictly follow the budget. Therefore, one of the challenges was to plan a budget for the usage of the psychologist service. The tricky part was that at the beginning, we had no clue of how many people would start using this opportunity. Based on our partners’ experience with corporate clients, we did our first predictions and planned the budget. Now, one year later, we can share some of our statistics.

During the first year, 8,5% of Playtech’s employees used the free psychologist service covered by the employer. Our partners’ prediction was 10%, so it was quite an accurate one. Only 14% of these people had one session, 86% of them had 2-5 sessions with the psychologist. This proved to us that most of the employees using the opportunity found it helpful, and went back for continuous counselling.

One of our fears at the beginning was that there would be too many people using this opportunity out of curiosity or because it is free for them, and our planned budget would ’explode’ quickly. Our experience clearly demonstrates that it is more of a challenge to convince people that they should consider this opportunity and use the service in the first place, rather than worry about people flocking to our partner clinics.

When analysing the attendance, based on our experience, in the first two months after launching the benefit the interest was the highest, but it calmed down quite quickly. When looking at the statistics, the attendance was the highest during dark autumn months like November and December and the lowest during summer (July, August).

All in all, we suggest trusting the partners’ experience and statistics while planning, and not be held back by the fear that there might be too high interest right from the start.

#6: Communication: an email, intranet page or a face-to-face introductory session?

As mentioned previously, in real life it was more challenging for us to draw the employees’ attention to the new opportunity and make potential users of the service take advantage of its availability.

Most people working in HR are probably familiar with the situation where sending some information out by e-mail results in people reading only the first two lines of it. So we knew that e-mail and intranet are rather passive ways for information-sharing and will definitely not be enough. The communication needs to be consistent and done through different activities.

At first, to give employees a better overview of this new opportunity, we had introductory sessions in English and in Estonian at our offices carried out by the psychologists from our partner health clinics. People had a chance to ask questions directly from our partners and HR. About 6 months later, we repeated similar sessions and tied it to a lecture about stress and burnout.

One of our Mindfulness series sessions held at Tallinn office

What is more, we have especially focused on our team leaders and organized sessions about mental health and wellness to provide them with the knowledge and awareness on how to notice when a person in their team needs help and what opportunities we can offer them.

Also, during extraordinary times like this spring, we reminded our people that we still have the psychologist service opportunity available for them if they’re feeling they need some counselling from a mental health consultant. We believe the important key here is to keep raising this benefit all the time through different activities and seminars. Our purpose is to raise awareness, but not to push people too much to take action if they are not willing to.

#7: Profitability: Is the cost actually worth it?

In the world of business, we always strive to measure everything and make decisions based on the profitability and outcomes. Measuring the direct outcome of the psychologist service might be tricky, as most of the people who use it want to stay confidential and it’s impossible to measure problems that have not arisen thanks to the help of the psychologist. It raises the question of how do we know it is working and that the investment in the service is worth it?

Of course, we can get some data from general HR KPI-s such as absence rate, employee turnover rate, number of sick leave days or from engagement surveys, but in this case, we chose not to concentrate too much on the statistics. As mentioned multiple times, the nature of the mental wellness programs and psychologist’s services is preventive – to keep small problems from growing beyond the person’s ability to handle them and taking a toll on their life, well-being and work performance.

Playtech's People Operations team behind our Mental Wellness Program

The best feedback for us have been the people who have personally come to HR and expressed their gratitude for the opportunity. Not long ago, an employee told me it was life-changing for him, and his life quality has improved drastically ever since he attended his first sessions.

The goal does not have to be very ambitiously measurable – the mental health program is a journey with a long-term impact. But even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. I am very happy to be a part of Playtech’s HR team and the organizational team behind the design process of making the psychological counselling services available to Playtech employees as a part of our benefits package.

We encourage all companies to follow this example and take the first bold step – the potential upside is much greater than the risk. Many big and attractive employers such as IBM and Microsoft already have psychologist’s or counselling sessions as part of their benefits package for a long time and we can see that as day by day goes by, it is turning into a more essential part of every reputable company’s benefit list. Employee experience and the wellbeing of the team is their as well as our highest priority and it should be yours, too.

"The nature of the mental wellness programs and psychologist’s services is preventive – to keep small problems from growing beyond the person’s ability to handle them and taking a toll on their life, well-being and work performance."