Benefits

By Lisa Kopochinski

In the not-so-distant past, employers often expected their employees to leave their personal problems at the door.

Fortunately, that line of thinking is changing as more employers realize this old adage is not realistic and that the side effects of working through personal issues, stress and anxieties at home – as well as deeper concerns like dependencies and addiction – spill over to work. After all, we are only human and we don’t come equipped with an on/off switch.

“When employers truly believe people are their biggest asset, they take action to protect and support that resource and strengthen the organization at the same time. Enter employee assistance programs (EAPs),” said Allan Stordy, president and CEO of Calgary-based Arete Human Resources, Inc.
He says people are often surprised to learn that EAPs first emerged in the 1940s. But the original approach was based on assisting workers with alcohol addictions.

“In those days, employees struggling with alcoholism were generally fired or retired on the job,” said Stordy. “This initial foray into assistance provided by employers, classified as industrial (or occupational) alcoholism programs, was an early forerunner of the more comprehensive EAPs we see today.”

EAPs by definition

Simply defined, EAPs are a resource that organizations use to support employees (and, in most cases, their families) in dealing with challenges and stresses that negatively impact their lives and, in turn, productivity and performance in the workplace.

In the past, a company’s concentration was on specific and limited concerns – primarily addiction. Today, EAPs provide support for marital and family concerns, gambling and dependencies such as Internet, food and shopping addictions, mental health concerns (such as depression, stress and anxiety) and behavioural conflicts.

“The recognition that family plays a large part of a person’s state of mind is also significant,” said Stordy. “Most EAPs today include the option for family members to be included. This makes so much sense, as we all know if a child, spouse or partner is suffering through an issue, carry-over effects can really impact the entire family and, [as a result], an employee’s performance.”

Stordy says that over the past decade, greater efforts have been made to increase the public’s understanding of mental illnesses and its serious repercussions.

“But we still have a way to go,” he says. “Today, one in five Canadians will be impacted by a mental health concern each year. The stigma may still be there, but more people are making the smart move of reaching out through EAPs and other services.”

Short-term help

It is important to emphasize that EAPs are designed to offer short-term counselling, such as helping employees develop coping skills to deal with specific situations. They don’t replace long-term treatment for serious issues, but provide an excellent starting point for someone looking to start the process.

Since personal challenges and stress affect companies to the tune of thousands of dollars each year, employers are seeing a genuine cost savings by implementing a quality EAP – one that provides access to an established number of professional counselling hours.

Peter Stratton, chief people officer with Western Financial Group in Calgary, says when looking at introducing EAPs into their company, human resources professionals need to consider a number of factors such as accessibility of the program to employees; quality of counselling resources; amount of coverage (i.e. hours); cost to the company; how well the program will be utilized; reporting; and confidentiality.

“HR professionals should try to network with other organizations that have a good employment practices reputation,” he said. “Networking can help give employers a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Also, having an understanding that the lack of a good EAP can potentially lead to a higher cost environment with more sick leaves and absences can help to ‘sell’ the idea of an EAP at the executive level.”

Stratton says the key services of EAPs often include the following:
• Family/relationship counselling (marriage difficulties, domestic violence, eldercare)
• Onsite services counselling/support (emergency situations requiring immediate onsite attention)
• Dependency counselling (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling)
• Work-related counselling (supervisor or organizational change, harassment, respectful workplace)
• Financial counselling (debt, budget, spending)
• Legal counselling (divorce, separation, child custody)

“Normally, there is no charge to the employee and since confidentiality is a key component in a good EAP, employees can feel confident their privacy will be respected and they won’t incur any costs for accessing professional assistance,” said Stordy. “This is a huge plus as paying privately can be out of reach for many individuals.”

Not just for employees

While it is easy to think EAPs are meant for employees only, a reputable program provides additional support for managers and business owners.

“The best EAPs provide human resources coaching and assistance in dealing with complex issues, which often involve terminations, bullying or harassment,” said Stordy. “We find companies really appreciate the support and it’s especially attractive as a complement to the work of internal HR professionals.”

In researching EAPs in its recent study, Investigating the Global Value of Employee Assistance Programs, Arete found that when employees access assistance through their EAP, businesses save an average of $900 per month, per employee. This, in turn, equates to $10,800 per year, per employee. Additionally, the study found that reduced productivity costs businesses an average of $13,000 per year, per affected employee.

“It bears repeating,” said Stordy. “EAPs provide access to expertise on behalf of the employer in what can best be described as a win-win situation: the employee gets the support they need, the employer sees a return to productivity and the issue does not escalate to a point where the individual requires external funded health care.”