How Employee Assistance Programs can provide leadership support in a changing workplace environment Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

A basic reality of today’s workplace for large, medium and small companies is that continuous change is the norm. Regardless of size, they have to do more with less, especially given the current economic environment.

The pace and volume of information has increased rapidly and there is a growing amount of specialization within industries and professions. It’s more than likely a company will have employees as young as 20 and as old as 70, as well as people in between. What engages and drives each of these groups varies.

“With an ever-changing work force and pressure on leaders to look both outside and inside at the same time, they need as many resources as possible to support success,” says Sandra Caffo, the senior director of LifeSolutions. “An employee assistance program (EAP) is a key resource in helping leaders effectively lead and manage today’s work force.”

Smart Business spoke with Caffo about how EAPs can provide leadership support in a changing workplace environment.

How do leaders manage in an environment of continuous change?

They need to simultaneously look outward and determine a plan to manage market conditions and focus inward to hire, engage and retain a healthy and productive work force. The internal focus is where the EAP comes in.

EAPs address work-related stress and other issues that impact job focus. Relationship difficulties, including marital and family concerns, emotional distress like anxiety and depression, alcohol and drug use and legal and financial challenges are examples. Child-care and elder-care resources, plus dealing with the impact of caretaking, are frequent requests of an EAP. There is nothing too small for the EAP to deal with. Taking care of the everyday challenges of work-life balance is what EAPs are designed to do through in-person, telephone and on-line interventions.

How can EAPs provide leadership support?

EAPs are not always thought of as a source of support for a leadership agenda. The common idea is that the EAP’s original, traditional mission is its only mission: helping individual employees and their household members. Many company leaders and human resources professionals still do not consider the EAP as a strategic partner.

In reality, organizational support has been a part of EAPs from the beginning. Working with supervisors/managers on dealing with employees in trouble with alcohol is how EAPs began. Today’s EAPs build on that expertise. They can also provide consultation to HR, leaders, managers and unions on resolving work group problems, managing a multi-generational workplace, positively dealing with differences and restoring productivity.

EAP expertise is human behavior in the workplace. Given that a company’s most valuable resource is its employees, what impacts them impacts the company’s bottom line. As a workplace-based program, EAP staff members are ready to partner with the organization to use the EAP to meet corporate objectives.

How can an employer take advantage of an EAP?

In addition to services to individual employees, EAPs provide a wide range of organization support services, including:

  • Human resources consultation in dealing with a difficult employee situation
  • Assistance in getting an employee to the EAP whether it is for personal reasons or due to job performance issues
  • Executive consulting and coaching
  • Supervisor and employee communications, including newsletters, Web sites and presentations aimed at supporting wellness and productivity
  • Working with leave managers to support successful return to work
  • Linking the EAP to wellness, engagement and other company-specific priority initiatives

Additionally, the EAP is there to help deal with out-of-the-ordinary, traumatic events at work like the death of a long-term employee, the impact of a natural disaster or an accident. The goal in all services is to support the resiliency of the individual, the group and the organization and to support effective problem-solving at all levels. In this way the EAP is part of a healthy organization strategy supporting a healthy bottom line.

What is an example of a new kind of problem that EAPs have to deal with?

One example relates to stress. As the pace of work increases, workers’ stress also increases. One way this shows up is in work groups not pulling together, being disrespectful toward each other, forming cliques or factions and becoming inefficient on the job. It’s a common scenario in today’s workplace and one EAPs work with regularly.

An EAP professional can examine what’s fueling the unrest and support the manager, HR and any other leaders who need to be involved in developing a plan to address the situation. Perhaps the manager will need to change management style. Or, it could be one or more employees would need to be referred to the EAP. Training may become part of the process. Because an EAP understands the culture of a company as well as the needs of the individual employees, it can be an active part of developing the problem resolution strategy.

A second example involves layoffs. When a layoff occurs, an EAP can support employees who are leaving the company, as well as those who are staying and may be feeling guilty. It can also help managers to maintain calm and keep staffs productive through the turnover.

SANDRA CAFFO is the senior director of LifeSolutions, which is part of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. Reach her at (412) 454-2227 or caffosm@upmc.edu.