Forget fears over corporate paternalism or the blurring of the line between home and work. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) – offering confidential telephone or face-to-face counselling for a range of issues from inflated gas bills to unfaithful husbands – are here to stay, and they are down in price.
Despite the rather archaic name for the service and a lack of awareness among organisations and even HR of what it offers, EAP providers – none of which yet outsource overseas – are already used by more than half of UK employers to help employees concentrate on their job, rather than their bad back or their teenage son’s GCSE problems. While they will not necessarily protect employers against legal action, they demonstrate recognition of the duty of care.
EAPs are helping employers with relationship problems, stress, anxiety, bereavement and depression. Although it is important to note that the unbiased information/advice/counselling service on offer aims to provide a short-term solution for financial, legal or emotional problems, not a long-term answer to serious physical or mental distress, practitioners claim that they are already significantly reducing sickness absence and improving productivity.
EAP providers claim that they not only reduce risk in specific “red flag” situations – where an employee is in imminent danger of either self-harm or harming others – but, more generally, alert HR to potential problems. They give employers a heightened awareness of when stress is becoming strain and help them assess what is going wrong in a department before absence levels start to rise.
And EAPs do no add to the workload of busy HR professionals as they can run themselves. They are largely self-referral programmes, so it is up to individual HR departments to decide their own level of involvement as well as warning them of trouble spots and helping to reduce the demotivation of staff burdened by personal problems.
When it comes to return on investment, hard data is not easy to come by. While EAP providers would be overjoyed to be able to offer incontrovertible evidence of how their schemes reduce absenteeism or boost productivity, this is not yet possible. The causes of absence leave are complex and varied, and an EAP is not a quick-fix solution.
This article is adapted from “Employee assistance programmes are a lifeline for your business” by Virginia Matthews. It first appeared in Personnel Today magazine on 24 July 2007.
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