Often underutilized employee assistance programs can improve the mental well-being and productivity of your workforce
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch
Bosses: Do you know where your employees are?
You might think you do, but you could be kidding yourself: Even if they’re sitting right in front of you, they might not actually be there.
It’s not that they’re on Facebook – although they probably are – it’s that other issues could be going on in their lives that are stealing their focus. At any given time, seven out of 10 workers show up for work distracted by something in their personal lives, say those in the mental health profession.
It could be as minor-seeming as a misbehaving child or a spat with a coworker. Or it could be as serious as depression, domestic violence or substance abuse.
It probably doesn’t sound like any of your business – but it might be, especially if your business suffers along with your employees.
Assets and liabilities
Employee distractions can do nasty things to a company’s balance sheets. The Society of Human Resource Managers reports that in the United States, one issue alone – untreated mental illness – costs employers $100 billion yearly in indirect costs.
“More days of work have been lost or disrupted by mental illness than by many chronic conditions, including arthritis, diabetes and heart disease,” SHRM indicates in its online publication, HR Today. “In certain industries, improperly managed mental conditions also can affect employees’ safety.”
Absenteeism and lost productivity caused by untreated depression account for a $51 billion-a-year loss for employers, according to the advocacy group Mental Health America.
The organization also calculates that America spends $26 billion a year treating depression – almost half what employers lose on untreated depression.
Employees whose minds are elsewhere can make mistakes, cause accidents, behave unprofessionally, turn off customers, lower workplace morale, neglect quality standards, and generally be the difference between a company making it and breaking it.
Employee assistance programs, more often known as EAPs, can mitigate some of these problems. They can give employees – and oftentimes their family members, too – an avenue to receive assistance. For employers, EAPs can help reduce workplace losses and save money on healthcare premiums.
Employers typically pre-pay a flat fee for EAP packages that entitle their employees to a certain number of counseling sessions with master’s level, licensed counselors, for any issue they might be having. Often the number of allowed visits is per issue – so for example, an employee could see a counselor five sessions to deal with a loved one’s alcohol problems, another five sessions to deal with depression, another five sessions to deal with anxiety or job stress.
EAPs don’t offer long-term treatment for serious mental illness, make formal diagnoses or prescribe medication, but usually offer confidential counseling by professional therapists, at medically licensed behavioral health facilities. In that sense, they feel no different to employees than counseling by traditional routes – except that the employee doesn’t need to pay money or provide insurance.
“Most of our customers pay a per-employee, per-year rate, and that rate is the same whether every employee and their families came and saw us or nobody came and saw us,” said Steven Baue, president and owner of ERC Counselors & Consultants in De Pere, whose five offices provide EAP services for some 300 employers in northeast Wisconsin. “There’s no cost to the employee or their family, and we do that in part to help remove the stigma and help people access our services.”
Baue said ERC Counselors & Consultants’ rate can be as low as 10 cents per day per employee for an eight-session-per-issue package.
He said most of us have some degree of depression and anxiety inside of us, but most of us can deal with it enough to function fairly normal. “But when life increases stress, with some of these issues, we’re not able to deal with them,” Baue said.
Out of 1,000 counseling sessions Baue’s counselors provide each month, 500 are for issues related to marriage and family, he said. About 25 percent of visits are for issues of low to mid-levels of depression.
“Most of time it’s your normal everyday person who is just overwhelmed. Something is happening, and there’s a life event that pushes them to a level where they realize they need some extra help,” Baue said.
If an employee requires further help beyond the EAP scope – additional sessions, prescriptions, or longer-term care for a serious mental illness – the EAP provider can make a referral or recommendation to a traditional provider.
“The beauty is when someone comes to see us, 85 to 95 percent of the time, we can help them get past that issue,” Baue said. “They don’t need to go into their insurance plan. They don’t need to go to a behavioral health facility. They’re good. With the remaining 5 to 15 percent, we refer them.”
While employers might be told how many of their employees used EAP, they’re never given names, details or information that could identify the worker to the employer.
“It’s done in a setting where you’re not charging insurance and you’re not having a diagnosis attached, so in that regard, it’s a far less stigmatizing environment to deal with these issues,” said Jeffery Stumbras, director of behavioral care for Prevea Health and Hospital Sisters Health System – Eastern Wisconsin Division. He’s also a licensed independent clinical social worker and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“It’s just as private and confidential in an EAP setting, and in fact, you could say it’s even more private and confidential because there’s no diagnosis made, there’s no label attached to that individual, no insurance billing that sort of highlights that this person has any kind of issue at all,” Stumbras said.
That added layer of discretion could encourage an employee to be even more honest with their counselor, he said.
Green Bay-based Prevea provides EAP services to companies through its Leadwell corporate wellness program.
Quashing distractions of all kinds
The help an EAP can provide isn’t limited to mental health issues, but the common theme is mental wellness.
“Things like smoking, marital issues, parenting issues, nutrition issues, weight issues – these kinds of things can have huge healthcare costs and huge productivity costs but don’t necessarily fall into the category of things people are in the routine of going in and getting care for,” Stumbras said.
Binge drinking might not reach the level of addiction or toxicity, yet it can still wreak havoc on others, society and the workplace, Stumbras said.
“It impacts life in general because issues of binge drinking, in particular, are some of the causes of emergency room visits, injuries due to drinking, hospitalizations due to drinking, arrests that occur due to drinking, and automobile crashes,” he said.
Sometimes other things will bring people in to see an EAP counselor. They might not even know what the root of their problem is.
“If someone’s binge drinking, and their spouse or partner is not necessarily excited about that, the benefit of the EAP is that they can come in and say to a counselor, ‘This issue is causing us some difficulty.’ Very often when people come in … they don’t necessarily identify that alcohol is a primary issue, but they identify that they’re having conflicts or disagreements or arguments and that might be sort of the ticket to admission,” Stumbras said. “The benefit of having somebody do some brief screening is it can open up a door to a variety of issues, whether they’re mental health issues, depression, anxiety, drinking or drug use, you know, those kinds of bigger issues.”
The EAP counseling benefit can be used for any reason, he said. “Anything – if they’re not happy with the boss, their children, their coworkers, even if their neighbors are cutting trees down that are landing in their yard – the counselors have training in relational issues.”
The tree example might sound trivial, but any kind of interpersonal dispute can cause emotional upheaval and lead to distractions at work.
“In an EAP, it’s not unusual for us to see people who come in using their EAP benefit simply because they’re not getting along with a coworker,” Stumbras said. “It’s not something you can go to your physician and simply say ‘I’m not getting along with my coworker. What should I do about that?’ but it is something that a standard mental health provider would be able to deal with because it falls into the category of a relational issue, which is something an EAP benefit can be used for.”
Often EAP benefits go unused – and a slew of myths, misinformation, attitudes and just plain ignorance contrive to make that the case. Some employers don’t bother to promote that they offer the programs, and they don’t take advantage of the wellness programs and lectures that are offered right at the workplace.
Many EAPs do onsite training and educational events on wellness topics, such as coping tips for caretakers, resiliency and happy relationships. Often it’s in the name of letting employees know they exist.
“When people say, ‘Who’s your biggest competitor,’ I say it’s a lack of awareness that we exist and what we do,” Baue said. “The yearly flat rate is the same whether every employee and their families came to see us or nobody came and saw us, so it’s in their best interest to take advantage of what we offer.”
Some other roadblocks to EAP utilization:
Getting help means you’re not tough. “People just need to learn to suck it up.” Even in our share-all society, there’s still a stigma around needing help or admitting you’re struggling. Telling people to keep a stiff upper lip is like telling people they need to learn to eat less, Baue said. “It sounds great in theory, but you’ve got to give people strategies.”
He likens it to exercise. “Just as we work on our physical health and there are things we can learn to make it better, faster and smarter, there are things we can do to help us through life’s rough patches better, faster and smarter,” he said.
Misuse of terminology. Sometimes things like the need for counseling to talk over marital issues get lumped under the same umbrella as mass murder and serial killing.
“When someone goes in and shoots up a nightclub, that’s not a mental health issue, that’s a mental illness,” Baue said. “But if I use that term to describe all counseling, then people start to say ‘I’m not like that, I’m not that bad, I don’t feel I need to go act out in violent ways.’”
That’s like comparing cancer to a cold, he said. “If you keep calling a cold ‘cancer,’ you’re not going to seek help. You’re going to say ‘I don’t feel like that.’ Our biggest barrier is that stigma of admitting you are struggling mentally.”
We’re supposed to fix it ourselves. We’re a nation of go-it-aloners and DIYers, and that’s true when it comes to mental health. The popularity of self-help books, websites and magazines would seem to illustrate that case.
“There’s an idea out there that we should be able to figure it out ourselves,” Baue said. “Telling people, ‘Don’t be sad/don’t be blue/don’t be anxious’ doesn’t help. They need strategies.”
Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.