Last month, we examined what psychological therapy is and how it can help people make positive change:
We are often asked – how many sessions will my employee need? This is definitely one of those “How long is a piece of string?” type questions, however here are some thoughts that can help provide an answer. It’s also a question one of our Umbrella psychologists are able to advise on, so do contact us to discuss.
What is an ‘average’ number of sessions?
The number of sessions each person will need does depend on their unique circumstances, their current challenges, and their strengths. Some research from New Zealand and internationally indicates that the average number of sessions attended is around five (e.g., Manthei, 2012; Gallagher, 2010). For some people, three to six sessions are enough to help them gain a different perspective and develop some effective new tools. Shorter periods of therapy are more effective where there are very specific issues which have not been going on for too long, where the individual already has a good toolkit of coping strategies, and where they recognise and are motivated to make changes.
Where there are multiple current challenges (some of which have been present for years), or when the individual does not believe there is a problem, longer periods of therapy may be required to achieve meaningful change. In these circumstances, a greater number of sessions may be needed, more like 10 to 20.
Also, just like with physiotherapy, where we may or may not keep doing the exercises prescribed to keep our backs in good shape or that shoulder problem under control, it can be useful to return for a refresher or check-in session some months after the initial psychological therapy sessions have been completed, just to ensure those old habits or pressures are not creeping back up. At times of major personal or workplace change, a “refresher” or support session from a psychologist you’ve seen before can be a very helpful preventative move.
It takes time to change habits
Have you ever tried to change a habit? To get a feel for how difficult this change can be, every time you brush your teeth for the next week, try doing it with the opposite hand to normal. How does it feel to do that? How much extra thinking and energy does it take you? Do you slip back into your old habit, especially at times when you are busy, stressed, or distracted?
This experience mirrors what it is like to try to change any well-established behaviour – it takes effort, energy, practice, and we are vulnerable to falling back into old habits. To firmly establish new, more helpful behaviours as a result of therapy, people need to practise them, and review that practice. Thus, for therapy to be effective, sufficient time is needed for the psychologist and client to: identify what the areas for change are, identify some options for improving the situation, try out one or more alternative strategies, review how effective those strategies were, and practise the effective strategies to the point where the client can do them fluently and effectively without the psychologist’s ongoing input. Suddenly, two or three sessions sounds a pretty short time to achieve all of this!
Some people also undertake psychotherapy for longer periods of time, and find this useful. This type of therapy tends to focus on people’s relationships and ways of interacting with others when they have longstanding difficulties in relationships or when they have experienced substantial trauma or adversity. Such longer term psychotherapy is less likely to be provided by a workplace, but may be something that individual staff are participating in, with great benefit to their long-term wellbeing.
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