The Cassandras

Some of us see things in the distance way before it comes into societal focus. Often people who are on nodding terms with trauma, clustered in the caring professions and the trade union underbelly, understand that things can always get about as bad as you think. We don’t appreciate the chorus of positive thinking and mindfulness Apps that have accompanied lock down and we’re filled with fear and fight about what happens next.

So, in the case of the mental health crisis in the UK right now I guess there’s a part of me that wants to say I TOLD YOU SO, AGES AGO but that would be a denial of the political reality, that we’re all operating under new conditions. 

One of the things that’s shocking about how mental health services have been decimated during this crisis is the speed at which mental health provision is grinding to an appalling halt. Over the last few weeks counsellors and therapists have been feeding in to PCP members the shocks that have entered the therapy system. From the emergence of online counselling training for £14.99 to moral pressure to contain a nations grief for free we are now truly seeing the Uberization of therapy. 

For someone who has been writing brashly about Ubertherapy like an overweight teenager over the last two years, even I didn’t see this coming.

In the mental health world, the domination of online and phone services has arrived prematurely.  Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs)- all glossy posters and positive messaging found in 8% of company staff lavs offering ‘counselling’ on the phone to keep the productive-labour-show on the road — have until now been an employer’s tick box exercise with an average reach of only 1% of staff.  Nobody really makes that free-phone call when they’re desperate about work.

EAP work was until Coronavirus like a therapy temp agency – you do it when you don’t have other work, usually at a lower rate than face-to-face work despite the equal, if not greater, demands on the therapist to contain and work with other people’s distress remotely. 

Amongst the professional tumbleweed, EAPs have shifted into gear recruiting heavily over the last few weeks. We have reports that counsellors are being forced to work at a lower rate, as well as pressured into working for free, because of the surplus of labour. In one case we know of an EAP charging a 50% ‘administration’ fee for new self-employed therapists looking for work as their private practices collapse.

Last week a really important gain in pushing back the degradation of therapeutic work happened. A large therapy provider, Health Assured, committed to stopping paying its online therapists less than face-to-face work. Health Assured as you’ll remember from last week’s blog, is part of a larger Group that includes Betfred. Maybe because of this fragile PR positioning, the sustained campaign on social media by PCP members and the negotiation work of Psychotherapy and Counselling Union (PCU) led to a retraction by Health Assured of unfair practices. They said:

“I am pleased to confirm Health Assured will be paying the higher face-to-face rate for telephone and video counselling, as due to reasons out of our affiliate counsellors control, only telephone or video support can be provided right now.”

As many of the experienced activists who read this blog know, securing benefits for workers doesn’t happen by accident or by heroics. Generally it happens through a mixture of a wide range of activists and organisations quickly taking up the dog-work of daily, at points hourly, campaign pressure on those companies that have become exposed. Add to this not wasting a good crisis and a bit of luck. 

It requires fast and accurate communications between therapists to these networks to identify what is actually happening in all this chaos, and enough experienced activists to do the campaigning in a way that creates a window for negotiations. From the social media bulldogs of Counsellors Together UK to the other members of the new umbrella network of progressive organisations Partners for Counselling & Psychotherapy, if you want the defence of paid work in the therapy industry you need these dogs-with-political-bones.

To help us continue to do this work we ask you to complete our EAP survey or forward the link to anyone working for an EAP so we can get an accurate picture of what is happening. The survey is completely anonymous, will take you 5-10 minutes and will be used to defend working conditions and rates.

Click here for the EAP survey.

Last week we launched a survey about self-employment and the impact on the 30% of people working in mental health who work insecurely in the system. This survey is still open for another three weeks so if you’re a self-employed worker let us know your experience here.

To get resources on how to survive working in mental health go to The Therapist Hub on the Partnership for Counselling and Psychotherapy here.

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