1.2.13 Employee assistance and counselling

An employee assistance program (EAP) is an arrangement between a corporation, academic institution or government agency and its employees that provides a variety of support programs for the employees. Although EAPs are aimed mainly at work-related difficulties, they can also help employees with problems that originate outside the workplace when such troubles impact work attendance or on-the-job performance.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) have been established to assist on a variety of employee problems within the workplace including:

  • Substance abuse and dependency
  • Adaptation problems in the workplace
  • Mental and personal relationship problems
  • Dealing with disease
  • Providing counselling

Such EAPs benefited organisations in many in various ways, including addressing problems and improving performance and productivity.

Employee Assistance Programmes, (EAPs), have been in existence in some form since the early 1940s. Early programmes focused on individuals whose alcohol use affected their job performance and thus were called, ‘Occupational Alcohol Programmes’. Dickman and Challenger (1988) report that ‘the EAP movement began…with one recovering alcoholic worker sharing his recovery with another.’

By the early 1970s, the scope of services provided by EAPs broadened and the number of companies implementing

EAP programmes increased significantly. The business community recognised that many everyday life stresses could also impact negatively on an employee’s ability to perform well in the workplace. By 2003 more than 88% of Fortune 500 companies provided EAP services in their workplaces. This number is expected to increase to 96% by 2006.

The fiscal benefit of an organisation providing an EAP is measured in both hard and soft costs.

Hard costs can be measured objectively and include statistics such as employee health insurance claims, absenteeism, workers’ compensation costs, and accidents at work.

‘Soft’ costs are more difficult to measure, taking into account worker retention, training, and personal and workplace satisfaction that directly impact on employee productivity.

Fluctuations in these figures are not necessarily attributable only to the impact of EAPs. However, studies that were conducted comparing the hard and soft costs of an organisation prior to and immediately following the implementation of a comprehensive EAP showed that the cost benefit was substantial.

Research shows that people today live with 65 % more stress than 20 years ago. Today, a modern day EAP will typically include assistance with-

  • Marital and family conflicts
  • Job stress
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Financial difficulties
  • Legal needs
  • Separation or divorce issues
  • Grief and loss
  • Parenting
  • Relationship issues
  • Anxiety, depression and/or anger concerns
  • Physical/sexual/emotional abuse communication problems

EAPs have evolved to deal with all of the above issues and more. EAPs can provide day care for children of employees and elder care for parents of employees. Legal and financial assistance may also be available.

In order for EAPs to strengthen their functioning, especially in the light of a growing prevalence and broader range of workplace problems to deal with, ideally they should:

  • Have an emphasis on overall wellness
  • Have a comprehensive and all-inclusive service delivery in the context of overall wellness
  • Re-skill and retool EAPCs to deal with a broader range of workplace problems
  • Communicate EAP services to all workers
  • Provide health and wellness education
  • Provide peer education training and counselling
  • Provide support to workers infected and affected by HIV and AIDS
  • Provide lifestyle and disease management
  • Provide monitoring and evaluation instruments to test the efficacy of EAPs within the workplace

As with many other non-core products and services, the management of EAPs tends to be sourced out by organisations. One of the main reasons for this is the need for confidentiality. When dealing with personal problems, it is essential that such problems are not spoken about in the workplace corridors. From that point of view alone, it makes sense that a specialist professional company manages often complex personal problems. It is notable that when an employee who has problems gets help, it usually boosts the entire team. It is also often unwise for anyone inside a department to assume the role of a therapist if a problem stems from personal circumstances.

Priorities for the successful use of EAPs

A number of priorities for the successful use of EAPs can be seen, namely:

  • Productivity must be seen as a strategic issue surrounding EAPs. This paradigm change will facilitate the use of productivity-enhancing solutions such as EAP and communicating leadership commitment to such practices.
  • The use of EAPs should be based on an informed set of expectations, which will have an impact on their strategic objectives. When using EAPs management’s focus should not be only to meet the business objectives, but also to achieve optimal utilisation of organisational resources (factors of production) namely, capital employed, company assets or equipment, as well as human beings.
  • EAP systems should be less reactive, and rather develop a more proactively preventative and facilitative role. A reactive or treatment focus is inclined to develop a stigma against those who are identified as needing counselling and support from EAP, whereas a proactive focus can be used to transform the organisational culture as a whole to a more caring and supportive one.
  • There is room in most organisations for EAPs to be positioned in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), social responsibility, and as a component of human resource benefits. This situation may be suitable for most companies, but unfortunately will not lead to optimal benefits from EAPs. EAPs fulfil organisational development functions and should therefore be positioned as a central part to all human resource management functions in an organisation.
  • EAP professionals often contribute to undermining EAPs within organisations because of their having an overly caring focus and a limited business focus. For them to be able to respond to, and anticipate EAP needs within a company, there is a need for EAP professionals to be aware of how the application of the EAP can improve the functioning of individual employees and therefore the organisation as a whole. This awareness will facilitate their ability to support the company and its employees in a manner that really matters to the company.

It must be emphasised that EAPs are not an aid for dealing with problem employees. They are frequently regarded as a way in which organisations must take responsibility for the overall well-being of employees in the face of the modern day pressures placed on their performance.