The Employee Assistance Program: A Priceless "After-Thought"
By Merrick Dresnin Company Director, Cote Family Destinations | July 26, 2020
In challenging times, employees are faced with multiple hurdles to overcome. They may have no idea whom to turn to or where to go. They may come to the Company for help. As seasoned as the HR professional or CEO may be, dealing with – divorces, suicides, natural disasters, or pandemics – are likely not in their wheelhouse of problem-solving. It is in these times that the HR professional needs to dig through his/her files or e-mails to find the contact information for the company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Visit HR, and you will see the small business cards with the EAP 800-number, or a flier laying around with the EAP's website. Why even have an EAP? It is important to have a general idea what an EAP provides. According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA):
EAPs serve organizations and their employees in multiple ways, ranging from consultation at the strategic level about issues with organization-wide implications to individual assistance to employees and family members experiencing personal difficulties. . . In general, an EAP is a set of professional services specifically designed to improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace and to address a work organization's particular business needs through the application of specialized knowledge and expertise about human behavior and mental health.(EAPA, 2016)
Thus, an EAP helps organizations tackle personal matters detrimentally affecting employee productivity. Such a program is unique in its ability to deal with matters company officials generally should not touch – matters that are occurring outside of work. When one is not sure where to turn, what to do, or how to help employees get back on track, EAP fills that gap and provides answers to questions that seem without answer.
Despite EAP's tremendous value in providing a need that companies cannot, it is rarely a key point of discussion when renewing benefits. Companies work with their brokers to negotiate good rates on medical insurance, dental, vision, long/short term disability. Multiple conversations may occur between the company and the broker, until the health costs are palatable. Focus is placed on medical plan utilization, plan deductibles, catastrophic claims, passing on costs to participants, etc. Once brokers provide company clients with medical costs, attention is then turned fleetingly to dental insurance, vision and ancillary benefits such as short and long-term insurance/disability.
Perhaps the broker may find a bone to throw with pet insurance or some other trendy benefit employees might find of interest. When everything is ready to be wrapped up in a pretty bow for presentation to the CFO and CEO, there might be mention of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAP - always an afterthought, and never the focus.
Part of the reason why EAP is an afterthought is the difficulty in defining its success and value. Measuring the effectiveness of an EAP is not as simple as measuring the effectiveness of other programs. Whereas you might be able to measure the effectiveness of a medical plan by looking at enrollment, utilization rates, hospitalization, pharmaceutical use, etc., EAP's value is difficult to measure. Utilization is hard to track because EAP-sponsored individual visits are confidential a vast majority of the time. Employees are rarely enthusiastic about sharing the fact that they are in therapy nor the results from such sessions. EAP Effectiveness is challenging to measure because session content is confidential, and the positive result may not be clear or obtainable for measurement.
EAP In Use
The value of an EAP is clearly illustrated in times of major disasters taking a toll on an entire company. Companies suffering through natural disasters have multiple issues to address and solve. Depending on the situation (hurricane, earthquake, domestic disturbance, pandemic), there may be financial challenges, guest issues, health/safety considerations. EAP can become a true partner in any crisis effecting the entire company and its employees. Employees in challenging situations need clear communication and specific resources; EAP may be able to connect individuals in need to what is needed. EAP professionals in the aftermath of a disaster, may have already gathered guidance for financial, emergency aid (available individual loans, foodbanks, additional medical care resources).
As companies think through their communication strategy in response to a crisis, EAP should be a part of any crisis communication plan. During the darkest first weeks of the Covid-19 "stay at home" orders, I spent multiple phone calls with our EAP partner gathering resources for fitness, inspiration, financial assistance. I then included such information in a series of communications to our core employees remaining on payroll along with employees laid off.
In times of more individualized tragedy, EAP can be invaluable. I have unfortunately faced a few employee deaths in my career. The aftermath would have been far less manageable if not for the partnership of my EAP's. An employee's death can paralyze and devastate co-workers in various ways. Through EAP, a company can arrange for a grief counselor to come to the property and address the tragedy in a group. There may be a charge for this counseling service, but it is nominal compared to the value of providing this service to grieving employees. After a call from Human Resources (HR), the company's EAP provider will swiftly initiate action, assigning a counselor experienced with similar scenarios. That counselor will usually travel to the worksite. Upon arrival and after preliminary discussions with HR, the counselor will likely address the population of employees who worked closest with the employee who had perished.
A good EAP counselor will collect information, so that he/she and company officials are able to provide facts regarding the incident – avoiding speculative comments/statements. Open-ended answers and speculative statements are not helpful. Employees are hurting and need answers – even if the answer is "We do not know as of yet". In my experience, the Counselor would spend time with Human Resources and Property Management gathering as much of the who, what, when, where and how, of the incident. We would then face our employees with an understanding of circumstances and preparation to speak to them. Employees will want to know when funeral services are being held, are any other individuals in danger, what happened, how could it have happened.
Preparing for these questions and then answering them with clear, concise, truthful answers is invaluable to the credibility of the company and the ultimate wellness of the employees. While a time for empathy, a good EAP counselor will remind his client that this is not a time for "sugar-coating". It is a time for honesty and information.
After a group meeting, the counselor will likely make himself/herself available for one-on-one sessions in a private, secluded area. Not all employees are comfortable taking advantage of on-site individual sessions, but the mere offering illustrates the employer's focus on the wellbeing of its employees.
Employees, themselves, may come to a company leader or the HR team and reveal that they are dealing with personal tragedies. It is never the place of the company officer or HR professional to provide detailed advice in such scenarios; no harm in sharing the ability to relate and willingness to illustrate empathy. However, the HR professional or company leader does not hold the role of therapist. An employee seeking therapy cannot get that from such individuals – we have a gap. Again, EAP can fill that gap for its clients. HR can put the hurting employee in touch with the EAP company via phone, and then allow EAP to connect the employee with a local therapy resource.
The program usually provides three (3) to five (5) visits after an initial phone screen for no charge. Usually if the EAP-assigned therapist believes the treatment to be effective, appointments may continue under the employee's health insurance coverage. EAP is a conduit to confidential services. No one is informed if the employee takes advantage of the service or not – including Human Resources. Knowing that level of privacy often increases the employees' comfort in taking advantage of the service. Further, honoring confidentiality yet referring to a viable (and available) resource adds to HR's and the company's credibility.
There are times when a company and EAP can directly partner to ensure an employee gets care they need to continue employment. Should, for example, an employee suggest interest in harming themselves, the company can consult with EAP and mandate therapy visits prior to allowing the employee to return to work. Should the company find this necessary, it is helpful to have the conversation with their EAP partner prior to meeting with the employee. EAP providers are very careful so as not to violate federal and state confidentiality requirements and will require consent from the employee to share therapy session attendance. If the employee has violated policy and may only continue employment if they seek help, this is a possible option thus saving the employee and benefiting the company.
There is no denying that typically your Employee Assistance Program is an afterthought – until it is not! When shocked, startled or upset by a workplace matter, that afterthought program provides a great partner when needing to come up with solutions.
Despite its lack of emphasis and attention, EAP can be an invaluable weapon when fighting to maintain or enhance employee wellness and wellbeing. Companies can fall back on their EAPs for multiple forms of invaluable support, increasing the wellness of individuals and the entire workforce. When employees have no one to turn to but you, that EAP contact information is something you can provide to them without hesitation. No one wants problems, but we have them. Your EAP is priceless because it provides solutions when no one else can.
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