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Stressed get a safety valve

Since February 1999, Bromley College of Further and Higher Education in Kent has offered staff with problems the chance to ring a confidential helpline. Since then, 15 of the college's 320 staff have used the 24-hour freephone number, seeking advice mainly for personal problems .

The college has no idea who the callers were and makes no effort to find out: the point is that anything to do with the helpline remains private. The only clues lie in the usage report sent to the college by ICAS which runs the helpline. This shows that just one of the 15 callers was concerned about work-related stress. Other calls related to things like caring for relatives or legal problems.

While a 5 per cent take-up rate does not seem high, the long-term benefits to the college may be far greater. Some of the staff might have required time off work to deal with troubling episodes in their personal lives.

"It's an extra service that we are providing," says Heather Cross, vice-principal for corporate services. "Those people might be having some very serious difficulties. If we had needed to provide direct assistance it might have been far more expensive."

Bromley College pays ICAS just over pound;1,500 a year so that staff and their immediate families have access to the helpline - equivalent to pound;4 per employee - plus VAT. "It's a reatively small budget," says Ms Cross. "We are always looking out for additional benefits we might be able to offer staff I which are mutually beneficial to them and us."

All the staff have been given a plastic card with the freephone number on it. However, some still require encouragement to use the service. Linda Nash, the college's personnel manager, says she occasionally reminds staff who come to her that the helpline is available. They have included an employee caring for a relative suffering from mental health problems and a woman whose husband had a nervous breakdown. Others were feeling under stress.

In the past, staff might have been referred to other agencies or to the college's in-house counselling team, which is mainly used by students. These options are still available, but Ms Nash believes the helpline offers a fast and simple source of support.

"The phone line is quick and anonymous," she says. "They don't need to pluck up the courage or perhaps take time off work to visit a counselling service. Instead they can do something about it straight away."

Ms Cross agrees that staff are more likely to use an outside agency or counselling service than risk students finding out that they are using the college counsellors. "That's enough for them to think twice about it."

NEIL MERRICK

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