Employee assistance programs Featured

8:00pm EDT October 28, 2006
A 62-year-old woman whose husband passed away is facing a bout of depression. A 27-year-old man figuring out how to pay for his M.B.A. to improve his chances of getting that big promotion. A 42-year-old trying to kick a smoking habit so that he can keep up with his three children.

These are very different problems, but their solutions could possibly come from the same source — an employee assistance program (EAP). This type of program offers resources to employees and their families to address the demands of work, life and personal issues.

“As an employer, you want your employees to be able to perform at their very best,” says Bill Berenson, vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. “An employee assistance program can provide help for problems or issues employees face outside the office, helping them to focus more on their actual jobs when they are working.”

Smart Business spoke with Berenson, who answered some common questions about employee assistance programs.

What are some typical features of an EAP?
In the past, employee assistance programs were mainly services that helped employees deal with issues such as alcoholism and substance abuse. While these types of services still remain, the range of features included in employee assistance programs has broadened greatly.

Some of the current features available in employee assistance programs are family/life programs, which can help with spouse-related relationship issues, child care, coping with holiday stress; weight management programs; mental health services for issues such as depression, anxiety or an eating disorder; advice on how to deal with emergencies such as household mishaps or natural disasters; legal and financial resources; and work-related resources to help employees prepare for a change in their jobs, develop professionally, or plan for retirement.

Who is eligible to use an EAP? And how often can it be used?
Generally, a company’s employees and their immediate family/household members have access to the programs, and the company can determine how often employees are able to access the program.

How should employees access an EAP?
It is important that employers communicate the features that are available to their employees. This can be done by creating an internal Web site where employees can view the services in their particular program. Most EAPs also provide a toll-free number that can be accessed 24 hours, seven days a week.

There should also be a main, private phone number where employees are directed to the correct resource if they are unsure who to contact.

How is privacy handled with an EAP?
Since many of the features of an employee assistance program might deal with sensitive, personal information, confidentiality should be at the forefront of any program. Employees should feel comfortable disclosing information without any fear that their employer might find out about personal details.

However, in extreme cases — such as when an illegal act is admitted or an individual is determined to be dangerous to himself or others — the information, by law, must be released to the appropriate authorities.

What kind of impact can EAPs have on employers?
Employee assistance programs can help employers in a variety of ways. First, by giving employees the resources to handle certain personal dilemmas, employers can help employees manage work and personal issues before they become unmanageable problems. As a result, employers can see improved productivity, as well as increased employee satisfaction and retention.

In addition, by giving employees access to a variety of resources that can help improve their health and well-being, employers will likely be able to better manage their health care costs.

At most companies, employees are an incredibly important resource — in many cases, the most important. A well-planned, diverse employee assistance program can help solve myriad problems that employees may be facing at work or at home, helping both employees and employers to achieve an optimal level of performance.

BILL BERENSON is vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or berensonw@aetna.com.