By Martha Rasche
If your company offers an employee assistance program and you’re not taking advantage of it, maybe you don’t know enough about it to realize the significant free benefits you are missing.
An employee assistance program, widely referred to by its initials, EAP, is primarily confidential. An employer is likely to learn whether an EAP is used — in part to help it reimburse the provider appropriately — but it generally doesn’t find out who uses it or why.
An EAP offers consultation with an EAP counselor, assessment for and referral to community resources, and counseling sessions. Depending on the provider, the counseling generally is four to eight sessions a year for not only the employee but also for the spouse and each dependent child. In many cases, free counseling is available for more than one issue during the year.
Southern Hills Counseling Center started offering an EAP to its employees in 1983. The idea was to help the organization be healthy by dealing with employees’ personal problems that were causing work problems, according to Jessica Cooper, Southern Hills’ EAP manager. The following year the company started contracting to serve other employers, and today it contracts with about two dozen companies in the five counties it serves (Dubois, Spencer, Crawford, Orange and Perry).
The program Southern Hills offers is for employees, their spouses and dependents up to age 26. The typical offering is six to eight hours of help per calendar year per person.
What Cooper and Angela Goeppner, Southern Hills’ EAP coordinator, are trying to do now is get employees of the companies they serve to “normalize” getting EAP help. The program is for anyone, not just for someone with a serious personal problem or for an employee on the verge of dismissal. In the case of Southern Hills, contracted services do not have to come from that counseling center. Some Southern Hills clients have out-of-state facilities and Goeppner coordinates with about 50 provider agencies. She helps those seeking assistance to find providers where they are and where they are comfortable.
Traditionally, an EAP might have provided counseling and consultation with supervisors about problem employees. Today, offerings include help with money management, legal issues, problem solving, stress management, substance abuse and dealing with sexual harassment. Southern Hills also provides supervisor trainings for companies it contracts with, and in November held a session about workplace bullying for the Dubois County association of human resources managers.
“We do provide treatment for chronic and persistent mental health issues,” Cooper said, but “it’s moved away from counseling to overall well-being.”
She declined to name any client companies, but she estimated that about 25 percent of people taking advantage of the EAPs offered through the counseling center seek help for adjustment issues — marriage, divorce, moving, a death in the family, getting kicked out of school.
Other top users are children with oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit disorder and adults seeking marital counseling or help with depression, anxiety, or alcohol or drug use.
Family members can benefit from more than one EAP if each spouse is employed by a different company that offers one, Cooper said.
Cooper said a 6 percent utilization rate is good, and her and Goeppner’s goal is for companies to reach a 7 or 8 percent utilization rate. Some companies have had a rate as high as 18 percent, she said. She added that many workers have reported on surveys that were it not for the EAP, their families would do without the services because they couldn’t afford the expense.
Jasper Rubber Products informs its 700-plus employees about EAP benefits throughthe company newsletter andnotices on company bulletin boards. Jasper Rubber contracts with EAP Consultants Inc., based in Marietta, Ga., and provides employees with the toll-free phone number to call to get an assessment started.
Employees, spouses and children receive four free consultations a year, which Vice President of Human Resources Reva Baker said often is enough to address a problem and get the person on the right path. Everybody has ups and downs in life, she said, and there should be no stigma to using the program. She said the company intentionally remains unaware of who uses it.
“I feel that it does increase the morale here,” she said. “A happy and healthy employee is productive.”
She pointed out that an unhappy employee is more prone to absenteeism and an unfocused employee is more susceptible to having an accident at work.
Kimball International’s EAP is provided by its health insurance carrier, Anthem. Its parameters are similar to those already mentioned, with its approximate 2,700 employees, their spouses and their dependents eligible for four free face-to-face visits with a counselor per year, according to Suzanne Hurst, director of employee services.
In some cases, the company has found it helpful to bring EAP counseling to the employees. That has happened in situations where a crisis affected an entire manufacturing plant, such as the sudden death of an employee or something catastrophic happening on-site.
Hurst said employees learn about the EAP when they find out about other job-related benefits, and the phone numbers are circulated. Supervisors bring it up generally and in specific instances when they know an employee is struggling.
Memorial Hospital in Jasper offers an EAP to its employees and also has behavioral health employees who provide EAP services. Faren Levell, the hospital’s director of behavioral health services, has both received and given EAP help. He believes one reason EAPs are underutilized is “the fear factor.” What if I go in and they really find something wrong? What if they find out I’m a bad parent? What if I get labeled?
Levell said that even in cases where a problem employee is required to seek EAP help, most employers find out only that the employee followed up; the contents of the sessions remain confidential.
When an employee seeks counseling on his own, the employer generally is able to track nothing more personal than the number of sessions completed.
For clarification, the person seeking services should ask the specific clinician what remains confidential and what gets reported back to the employer.
EAPs that Levell is familiar with give a list of qualified providers, but the individual often can arrange to go elsewhere, similar to a medical patient getting his insurance carrier’s OK to see a doctor out-of-network. Unlike insurance, though, EAPs don’t require diagnostic codes; someone can get free help for any reason.
An “EAP is not about finding or treating a mental illness. It is about the individual gaining some skills to live a healthy, balanced life,” Levell said.
The hospital has a contract with LifeServices EAP out of Indianapolis to manage the EAP program for employees. If medication or an appointment with a doctor is required, an EAP usually doesn’t cover that, Levell said. But many problems require neither, and three or four sessions with a counselor often are enough to understand the problem, get the person through a rough spot and follow up on how things are going, he said.
Levell made two comparisons between mental health and dental health.
Many people get a dental checkup twice a year, whether they are experiencing pain or not, “yet we fail to get simple free assistance when our brains are experiencing great stress which makes us unhappy and less productive.”
In smaller companies, and in close-knit departments, supervisors might try to fill the role of listener and counselor for their employees. Levell advises against that.
“(Their) time and energy isn’t for taking care of the mental health issues of (their) staff,” he said. “You wouldn’t do that for a toothache.”
Employees who don’t know if their company offers an EAP should ask the human resources director or, in the case of smaller companies, the owner. Any employer wanting to learn more about offering an EAP should call Jessica Cooper or Angela Goeppner at Southern Hills at 812-482-3020 or the Memorial Counseling Center at 812-996-5780.
Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee, the county suicide awareness coalition and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from a grant from Memorial Hospital, she is writing a monthly column on mental health. Contact her with your mental health experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-634-7184.