Taking a Fresh Look at EAP Counseling

Employee assistance programs can help clients through many of life’s problems—in person and virtually

By By Arlene S. Hirsch, MA, LCPC Oct 12, 2016
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​When Steve Albrecht was an officer with the San Diego Police Department, he frequently reached out to employee assistance program (EAP) counselors to help him cope with the stresses of his job.

Speaking from both personal and professional experience, Albrecht, who now manages a San Diego-based training, coaching and consulting firm, says EAPs are an essential resource for employees who are under personal and professional stress.

Yet this valuable resource remains underused.

Albrecht recognizes that, for some employees, there may be a stigma attached to using this service. Historically, EAP counseling has primarily served as a resource for people with substance abuse problems or serious mental health issues. Employees who don't fall into these categories (or who don't want anyone to find out that they do) are likely to eschew EAP counseling.

In reality, modern EAPs address a much broader range of problems. In its 2016 report, EAP services provider Chestnut Global Partners identified stress-related issues as the No. 1 concern of North American employees who used its services. Other common problems were relationships, child behavior, anxiety and depression. And now, utilizing technological tools, employees can access EAP services virtually and privately.

Employees Don't Know It Exists or How It Works

In many organizations, EAP counselors are housed offsite. Increasingly, employers provide EAP services through the use of outside vendors. While this helps ensure privacy and confidentiality, it also makes these services largely invisible.

"HR doesn't publicize EAPs enough," Albrecht said. "Just talking about it during employee orientation is not sufficient."

He recommends that companies ask EAP providers to come regularly to the facility and present brown-bag lunch sessions on EAP-related topics that resonate with a wide range of employees (pet loss, smoking cessation, coping with depression, death of a family member, etc.).

U.S. Bank keeps its counseling services, provided by Ceridian LifeWorks EAP, top of mind through traditional corporate communication channels including the company intranet and employee e-newsletters. It solicits employee feedback to better understand what kinds of problems and challenges employees are coping with and then tweaks its efforts in response.

To connect with employees around crises or life events—such as moving, having a baby or preparing for a leave of absence—Ceridian introduced "Life Event Messaging" for its clients. Automated messages offer immediate support and resources that are specific to the employee's situation and that serve as a reminder that EAP counseling is available and relevant to what's happening in their lives.

When the bank discovered that its employees were struggling with financial problems, for example, it had Ceridian hire trained financial counselors to address that need.

Employees aren't the only ones who don't understand what the EAP is and how it works. When Albrecht asks HR professionals in his workshops to explain the EAP resource (and how to use it), they are often equally uninformed.

It's hard to advocate for a resource that you don't understand or appreciate.

Albrecht recommends that HR professionals who are unfamiliar with their organization's EAP connect with colleagues in other companies who have those services to see what's been successful for them.

Many Society for Human Resource Management members likely already have programs. According to the International Employee Assistance Professional Association:

  • Over 95 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs.
  • 80 percent of companies with 1,001 to 5,000 employees have EAPs.
  • 75 percent of companies with 251 to 1,000 employees have EAPs.

Confidentiality Concerns

Employees may be reluctant to seek EAP counseling because they don't want their employers to know they're having problems.

HR and other company stakeholders need to continually remind employees that EAP services are completely confidential. Counselors do not report back to the organization, and there is no external record of the counseling sessions.

"There is no need for employees to tell anyone," Albrecht said. "They don't need to ask permission, go through HR channels, or do anything other than contact the EAP and make an appointment."

There can also be financial advantages for employees to use EAP services that workers may not be aware of. Because EAP counseling services are free to employees, there aren't any co-pays or deductibles. EAP counselors are also equipped to deal with categories of problems that health plans won't cover.

At Claremont, an EAP services provider in Alameda, Calif., marital/relationship problems is the most common reason people use its services, according to CEO Tom Farris.

"Couples counseling isn't usually covered by health plans," Farris said. "We can counsel couples at no cost to them. That's a real savings."

The E-Counseling Solution

E-counseling, also known as "tele-psychology," frequently involves tele-counseling or video-counseling.

"Younger employees are often drawn to it because of their love of technology," Albrecht said.

E-counseling also offers a practical alternative to employees who can't make it to a counselor's office for any number of logistical reasons.

Dave Sharar, chief clinical officer for Chestnut Global Partners in Bloomington, Ill., believes that tele-counseling is a pragmatic response to the demands of a more hectic world that values the efficiency and convenience that new technologies provide. Technology can help overcome barriers that hinder access to conventional face-to-face services, such as transportation, accessibility, scheduling conflicts and perceptions of stigma.

"There's a convenience factor," Sharar said. "It eliminates travel time and provides greater flexibility in scheduling. We offer the option and help the client decide what they feel comfortable with."

E-counseling creates welcome privacy for high-profile clients, such as doctors and lawyers, who sometimes worry about running into their clients in a counselor's waiting room, Sharar noted, citing a story about a group of ministers who preferred tele-counseling to office visits because they didn't want to bump into their parishioners in the parking lot.

Marlene Maheu, a tele-psychologist and executive director of TeleMental Health Institute based in Cheyenne, Wyo., believes that the growth in tele-counseling services is particularly helpful for clients who live in rural areas where access to clinicians is more limited.

Video-counseling is also on the rise.

"Video-counseling is better than tele-counseling because you get some of the benefits of seeing the person," said Albrecht, who stressed the importance of using up-to-date computers and cameras.

"It's only as good as the technology that you're using," he explained. "When poor technology interferes and distracts from the conversation, it is counterproductive."

Claremont uses a Web-based videoconferencing program that is similar to Skype but meets medical security requirements. The program is designed to mirror a traditional face-to-face counseling visit. Prior to their sessions, clients enter a virtual waiting room, where there's zero chance of accidentally bumping into someone they don't want to see.

Farris has found that video-counseling is both convenient and effective when working with couples who happen to be in two different locations due to travel and scheduling conflicts.

"Any way that we can increase access, that's how we want to serve them," Farris said.

Sharar sees the value in a blended approach that makes it possible to take advantage of what each modality has to offer and to change modalities seamlessly. For example, an employee might attend the first two sessions by phone or video, then meet face to face with the counselor and follow up with online communication.

"The key is to get and keep the employee engaged in the process," Sharar said.

Counseling typically lasts about three to six sessions. If a problem is more severe or requires longer-term treatment, most EAPs maintain a referral network that employees can access. In those cases, EAP counselors can identify and assess the situation to determine the best way to deal with the problem.

Does It Work?

Companies use EAPs because doing so makes good business sense. When organizations invest in the well-being of their employees, the organization benefits as well. When employees are under stress as a result of personal or professional problems, their productivity and performance suffer. This can negatively impact an organization's bottom line.

Stress has been called the "health epidemic of the 21st century" by the World Health Organization. Nearly half of all workers suffer from moderate to severe stress while on the job, and 66 percent of employees report that they have difficulty focusing on tasks at work because of stress. This is estimated to cost U.S. employers nearly $300 billion a year.

In a survey of 2,500 employees conducted by Chicago-based EAP provider ComPsych, respondents reported that stress interfered with concentration and focus, caused them to make errors and miss deadlines, and undermined relationships with co-workers and bosses.

EAP services can help employees manage their stress. Speaking strictly in dollars and cents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that "all of the published studies indicate that EAPs are cost-effective." And the U.S. Department of Labor reports that for every dollar invested in an EAP, employers generally save anywhere from $5 to $16.

However, Sharar cautions against calculating return on investment purely in financial terms. He encourages a more qualitative approach that focuses on getting the best possible results on a case-by-case basis.

"We get caught up on high utilization as the most important metric," he said. "But high utilization doesn't speak to specific results or what happened with those people who used the service."

HR's Crucial Involvement

Although use of employee assistance programs is confidential, HR still needs to be involved with EAP providers.

Sharar encourages employers to actively engage with EAP providers as valued business partners to increase the level of engagement and develop programs and services that meet the unique needs of the organization and its employees.

HR has the responsibility of educating managers and leaders about the value of the EAP services, finding effective ways to reach out to employees to get them engaged, and continuously working with the EAP manager to ensure that the programs and services are relevant to the employer and its workforce.

"It's an investment," Sharar said. "HR needs to be involved." 

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is www.arlenehirsch.com.

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