Duty of care: a helping hand

Employers are bending over backwards to offer emotional and practi0cal support to their staff. Uptake of employee assistance programmes (EAPs), helplines and even in-house counselling services is on the increase. From debt counselling or stress therapy to advice on finding a school or dealing with a wayward teenager, managers are getting more involved in what happens to workers outside the office.

Employers are required by law to have a duty of care to ensure they offer a safe, unthreatening environment in which to work. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are obliged to ensure, as far as is reasonably feasible, the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work, and to assess the health and safety risks. Since the 1999 regulations, in particular, managers can now fall foul of the law if staff become stressed.

Consequently, employers are offering innovative schemes to help staff feel more comfortable at work. The mobile network provider O2 provides a debt counselling service, for example, and Ealing Council offers a support programme for employees who are victims of domestic violence.

But while no-one could argue with the good intentions of these programmes, where should HR professionals draw the line between being a source of support and getting too involved?

Almost 30 suppliers now offer EAPs, costing anything between £10 and £25 per employee per year. These programmes tend to comprise services such as helplines, counselling and legal advice, but can also encompass information services such as train timetables.

The suppliers claim their main benefit is that employees who are grappling with personal issues are less likely to be wrestling with them during work time. Fewer personal problems means fewer distractions, and that adds up to increased productivity.

Unwelcome intrusion?

However, critics suggest that some staff might feel such schemes to be an intrusion into their personal lives. Sessions with an on-site therapist or member of the occupational health team, for example, should be confidential. But according to Paul Roberts, strategic director at the health and wellbeing specialist IHC, some EAP schemes offer a ‘red flag’ arrangement, which allows a therapist to breach confidentiality in extreme circumstances.

These would include a situation where an employee appeared suicidal or even dangerously aggressive towards another member of staff. There have also been cases where employers have taken further action after being informed about instances of sexual harassment by managers.

Occupational psychologist Dr Val Sutherland, co-founder of Sutherland Bradley, believes that while most organisations offering help with debt or relationship problems are acting with the best possible motives, they need to look at the underlying issues behind the problems, which may stem from the workplace.

“If staff need debt counselling because they aren’t being paid enough, then the organisation may need to rethink remuneration,” she says. “I would also foresee a problem if an outside provider was used to effectively absolve an employer of all its responsibilities regarding workplace bullying or harassment. If it’s a case of saying that staff problems should be kept out of sight and out of mind, then I would question the value of these arrangements.”

In addition, case history suggests that where staff have tried to bring a stress-related claim against their employers, having an EAP in place can prove to work in the employer’s defence.

However, this is not always the case. Last month, an HR professional at computer-chip maker Intel was awarded more than £114,000 after she suffered a nervous breakdown, despite the fact that Intel offered a free counselling service to staff.

Added extra

The key is to view EAPs and similar programmes as an added extra, rather than a solve-everything investment that will absolve managers of all responsibility for employee welfare.

Roberts estimates that, at present, only about 10% of the employees covered by these arrangements – most of them women – feel sufficiently confident, or needy, to use the EAP facilities provided. At O2, for example, only 6% to 7% of the workforce have taken up the EAP provision on offer.

“I’m not saying we want thousands of people to start using the service overnight, but we do want to encourage more awareness of the scheme and how it can help our staff,” says Tracey Flashman, head of policy at O2. “Our research shows that we need to reposition the service as being more friendly and independent.”

It is also crucial that the service is voluntary, according to Tim Cuthell, consultancy and sales director at Employee Advisory Resource, part of Accor Services.

“Ensure that no-one is forced to seek help and advice, and that no-one is obliged to even consider approaching the service,” he says. “If an employee is worried about an impending marriage breakdown or an issue of ‘eldercare’, they are simply going to concentrate less and be less efficient at work,” he says.

Business benefits

Cuthell believes that the first myth about EAPs – many of which extend their help to the families of employees – is that they exist for the benefit of staff alone. “We see EAPs purely and simply as a bottom-line issue for organisations, a way of moving distractions at work so that staff can get on with the job and avoid taking time off to deal with non-business issues,” he says.

The vast majority of problems encountered by clients of Employee Advisory Resource are about relationships at home, with stress-related issues in second place. Financial headaches, including debt or fears over inadequate pension arrangements, are a growing area of concern.

As HR moves away from its reputation for ‘tea and tissues’ and into a more central commercial role, could EAPs fill the void?

“The traditional role of the HR or ‘welfare officer’ has gone and we need to offer something in its place,” says Flashman. “We want to lessen the impact of people bringing their emotional baggage to work.”

Not every employee may appreciate the caring efforts of their employer, but even a small increase in productivity – and more crucially morale – justifies the initial investment.

An employee’s story

“After borrowing money for home improvements and a new car, my repayments were quite high, but I had always managed to cover them until I lost my job. I managed to find a new job quickly, but at a significantly lower salary. I missed a couple of months’ repayments and the letters started arriving from my creditors. It was the only thing I could think about.

“My brother worked for a company that provided a service called Employee Advisory Resource and suggested I called them. I spoke to a debt specialist who asked me to complete an income/expenditure form and they then looked into my outgoings and calculated how much I could afford to pay back.

“Employee Advisory Resource contacted my creditors and asked them to consider freezing the interest on my loans and reducing my payment amount. Thanks to the service, the creditors agreed and my payments are now reduced to a level where I no longer need to worry.”

Duty of care – employers’ obligations

In 2004, the Health and Safety Executive issued a set of standards that employers can follow to minimise their chances of being caught out by the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. They focus on how employers can avoid putting undue stress on staff, and consequently avoid legal ramifications.

The Management Standards cover six areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence. These are:

  • Demands – workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control – how much say employees have in the way they are expected carry out their work.
  • Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict, and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures they do not have conflicting roles.
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

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