Edición 57, Human Resources

Employee Assistance Programs: Improve Employees’ Overall Well-being and Guarantee Yourself a Healthy Organization

By: Jing Melanie Xi
Guangdong University of Technology, School of Management

In the minds of today’s managers, it’s common sense that an organization’s employees are its most valuable asset. Keeping a healthy and energetic manpower force may mean the difference between success and crisis, or even failure, in a business operation.

In practice, however, assessing employees’ overall wellbeing is poorly understood and rarely evaluated. Consequentially, it’s not strange to see high rates of absences, sick leave, low morale and even more terrible accidents in work places.

Between 2009 and 2010, the world was shaken by a wave of staff suicides in French Telecom: 20 workers took their lives within 18 months. At almost the same time, the suicides of at least 13 Chinese workers in its plants put Foxconn, which assembles products for Apple Inc. and Sony Corp, under fire. As recently as December 2015, Junming Li, a group leader at Tencent, the second largest internet company in China, died suddenly at home at the age of 30. The reasons for these employees’ death were similar: tough working conditions, high job stress, a sense of alienation and misery at work. These events made managers understand that human resource management should not simply focus on recruiting, training, compensating, evaluation and other traditional issues, but also the emotional and mental condition of employees.

Employees face economic problems in supporting their lives and physical problems in keeping healthy; they need time to relax, and be together with their family and friends. Their relationships with parents, wives, kids, and colleagues may cause emotional strain, and they may also be worried about the future of their careers.  Though most of these problems originate outside the workplace, they can impact work attendance or on-the-job performance negatively, or cause social problems.

Successful organizations tend to be those that are committed to helping their employees manage and deal with a range of issues they may face. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are the most effective method for organizations to performance this function.

What are EAPs, and why are they used?

EAPs are series of workplace-based benefits or services designed to offer employees and their family members the emotional and practical support necessary to function optimally. EAPs started about six decades ago, as occupational alcohol and substances use programs. Since then, they have dramatically evolved into comprehensive managerial instruments that often combine work-life and other behavioral health services to address a host of mental health issues and workplace performance problems.

As a feature of HRM processes, EAPs have gathered greater prominence in recent years. Over 75% of U.S. employers and 67% of Canadian employers provide EAP services to their employees and family members. Although readily available at many workplaces in affluent countries, EAPs are still rare in other parts of the world, especially in emerging economics like Mexico and China. The reasons are twofold: firstly, employers know little about EAPs, and secondly, some managers consider EAP services investments which increases management costs but only benefit employees.

While it is true that EAPs cost money, those are costs that are returned exponentially by reducing absenteeism and employee turnover, maintaining a more harmonious workplace, minimizing plant accidents, and reducing managers’ daily workload. These are benefits that, in turn, decrease operating costs and increase productivity. According to the successful experience of MacDonald Douglas, the annual return of investment on an EAP project is at least 1:3. Such success can be duplicated, however, only by designing the right EAP for an organization—one that takes organizational culture and the specific purpose for having an EAP into account.

Service Contents of EAPs

EAPs cover a wide range of services from working environment design to personal issues affecting an employee’s job performance. Although the services differ from workplace to workplace, they tend to include the following:

  • substance abuse or alcohol problems
  • mental health
  • emotional problems
  • physical health
  • marital problems
  • parenting problems
  • professional career development
  • legal and financial problem
  • crisis and workplace critical incidents intervention
  • management and work team problems

Employees and their family members can get these services for free through the following channels:

  • phone and web-based consulting
  • face-to-face private consulting
  • group guidance
  • specific training
  • executive coaching

In most cases, organizations combine several channels to fulfill EAP functions according to their culture and needs.

Operation Models of EAPs

Once the decision to implement EAPs has been made, the first question that comes to an employer is who will manage and provide the service? Three models are available: internal programs, external programs, and blended programs. Which to choose depends on whether or not the organization has dedicated EAP staff of its own to implement EAPs, and what sort of budget the organization has available.

Originally EAPs were staffed by individuals working directly for the host organization. These programs were typically referred to as internal EAPs. The host organization would have a full-time program director, one or more clinical professionals, and some administrative staff to coordinate the services. On-site contact between employees and counselors was possible, as well was 24-hour support and counseling services over the phone, especially for work locations without EAP staff counselors. The use of internal EAPs for management consultations and other organizational services is substantial compared to other program models. The overall level of EAP utilization for internal programs varies, as does the cost for the program.

Today, with the development of the EAP industry, the bulk of the EAP services are offered by vendors in the workplace. EAPs where all or most aspects of the services are primarily delivered by a vendor are considered external. An external EAP vendor that provides services to help organizations enhance the wellbeing of their employees may be a not-for-profit or for-profit enterprise. Depending on how they’re arranged, the degree of onsite presence for external EAPs varies, but is often less than with internal programs. The use of phone-based EAP counseling sessions and organization-wide training programs may be emphasized.

The blended model is the third way to implement EAPs. It features a small staff which is employed by the host organization, directs the EAP, and provides some onsite clinical and management related services. In the blended model, most of the clinical services are provided by affiliate counselors who work for an external EAP vendor but coordinate their activities through the internal EAP staff.

No matter which model is used, the services must be managed and delivered by trust-worthy professionals, so as to ensure the quality of EAPs. Within the past decades, there has been a movement to standardize the services. As a consequence, there are now two voluntary accreditation certifications specific to EAPs: the first is available from the Council on Accreditation (COA), a US-based international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization founded in 1977; the second is offered by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, now known as CARF International, a group of companies composed of  CARF Canada and CARF Europe. Because some EAP venders are part of larger health care or social service agencies, they may also describe themselves as “accredited,” though the process through which they are certified are not specific to their EAP product. Also, there may be difference local certificate system in different countries. For example, a Chinese EAP counselor can get accreditation from Chinese Vocational Skills Identification Center of National Human Resources and Social Security Ministry.

EAP Initiation Process 

After selecting a proper EAP provider, the employer needs to develop a plan to get the program started. The initial EAPs process is normally composed of 5 steps:

Step 1: Establishing an EAPs Team

Right at the start, a team or committee, including members of the human resources department, must be established to lead and supervise the EAPs implementation. The team must then decide on which operational model should be used: internal, external, or blended.

Step 2: EAPs Need Data

The EAP team must next identify targeted stakeholders (i.e., employees) and the commonly existing issues among them, so as to determine what specific kinds of EAP services and topics are of most use to their needs. A database should be established. These data can be obtained by means of questionnaires, interviews, psychological test and organizational performance review.

Step 3: Developing and Publicizing an EAP Implementation Plan 

Based on the survey results of the former step, an EAP implementation plan should be designed. The plan should include areas covered by the EAP, techniques to be applied, implementation schedules, persons to be involved, and the budget. Specific goals and metrics should also be developed for each of the services.

The implementation of the program should be publicized via internal newsletters, the business’s internal website, and any other means of communication guaranteed to reach employees in every sector of the organization. The various services available through the program should be clearly listed, and the confidentiality of the services must be assured.

Step 4: Implementing EAPs

Implement the EAPs according to the plan. For example, set aside appointment times within the human resource department to speak individually with employees about their questions, and refer these individuals to the program so they may make any necessary appointments with specialists and begin accessing services.

Step 5: Follow Up and Evaluation

The results of each of the EAP services need to be measured and reported on, in order to evaluate the outcome. These results then become the basis for making improvements and changes in the program’s future operation.

Implications for Managers

Besides the five necessary steps listed above, managers should also take the following actions into consideration to assure the smooth implementation and fruitful outcome of EAPs:

  1. Show Leadership Support of EAPs: Senior executives at the organization should announce the availability of EAP services, emphasizing the organization’s interest is maintaining a healthy workforce and outlining the steps the organization has taken in terms of offering those services. This will introduce the EAPs into the organization’s culture and encourages its use.
  2. Provide Promotional Communications: Regular communication with employees and family members regarding the availability of the EAP and the importance of being proactive concerning its use is critical to program’s success. All of the staff in the organization should be encouraged to approach the EAP with an attitude that any one of them could one day need, and readily make use of, one of the provided services.
  3. Encourage Manager Training: Managers should be trained to recognize changes in behavior or the presence of individual conflicts between colleagues or among subordinates. Supervisors can be taught to proactively identify personal and behavioral issues in employees, and take appropriate action to involve the EAP to get them the help they need.

Suggested readings:

Richmond MK, Pampel FC, Wood RC, Nunes AP. The Impact of Employee Assistance Services on Workplace Outcomes: Results of a Prospective, Quasi-Experimental Study. Journal of occupational health psychology. 2015 Dec.

Nobrega S, Champagne NJ, Azaroff LS, Shetty K, Punnett L. Barriers to workplace stress interventions in employee assistance practice: EAP perspectives. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health. 2010 Oct 28;25(4):282-95.

Bhagat RS, Steverson PK, Segovis JC. International and Cultural Variations in Employee Assistance Programmes: Implications for Managerial Health and Effectiveness. Journal of Management Studies. 2007 Mar 1;44(2):222-42.

Csiernik R. Employee assistance program utilization: Developing a comprehensive scorecard. Employee Assistance Quarterly. 2003 Jun 1;18(3):45-60.

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