UK: HELPING HAND TO EMPLOYEES. - Nannies for wimps? Companies are calling in stress counsellors.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nannies for wimps? Companies are calling in stress counsellors.

Twenty years ago workers were expected to leave their troubles outside the company's doors. In these softer and more humane times, many businesses have EAPs, Employee Assistance Programmes, to help members of staff cope with difficulties. EAPs provide counselling over a vast array of problems, which may be work-related or strictly personal - anything from strained relationships at home or in the office to alcoholism, drugs or being behind with the mortgage. Staffed by trained counsellors who are retained and paid for by the company, the EAP is a voluntary and confidential service available to all employees and members of their immediate families.

It is estimated that EAPs now cater for one million people, and demand for their services is increasing rapidly, reports Alistair Anderson of Personal Performance Consultants (PPC), an EAP provider since 1987. Employees' problems are assuming greater proportions, he thinks. Eight years ago, it was usually some simple issue that worried them. 'Now, in a high percentage of cases, it's the final straw syndrome. Employees may come with some concern about the boss, for example, but beneath that they have multiple problems.' The problems, says Richard Hopkins, president of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, typically break down into 15% work, 25% personal, 25% family or marital, 10% substance abuse, 15% financial or legal - and another 10% miscellaneous. On average, 10% of employees use the EAP facility provided by their employers, and half of these will see a counsellor three or four times.

There are four reasons why the use of EAPs is growing strongly, according to Professor Cary Cooper of Manchester School of Management, UMIST, who is currently leading a 30-month study of their effectiveness for the Health and Safety Executive. 'Organisations say they want to help employees cope with the massive change which is frequently happening in the workplace, they want to provide support, they regard EAPs as good PR, and recent litigation (as in the case of John Walker, a Northumberland social worker who successfully sued the Council for destroying his health) leads them to think that being seen as a good employer might count in their favour should they too be sued.' Now serving 135 companies and 250,000 employees in the UK, PPC was recently asked to provide an EAP programme for the 3,900 staff at the Bank of England. 'We are going through a major organisational change process at the moment,' explains the Bank's personnel director Roy Lecky-Thompson. 'There is clearly uncertainty. EAP is an Elastoplast for this transitional period. But we also view it as part of our approach to effective human resource management.' The initiative has its critics, Lecky-Thompson admits. Some say that the money could be better spent, others that counselling is just for wimps. 'A third - rather curious - view is that the EAP is an abdication of our responsibility.' An EAP is not an admission of management failure, insists Jill Dunlop, personnel manager of the wine and spirits retailer Threshers. (The 9,500-strong Whitbread subsidiary has a 'person-to-person' scheme operated by Focus.) 'A counsellor can handle issues that managers are not equipped to cope with,' Dunlop argues, and so take pressure off managers as well. Nick Blake, director of human resources at Courtaulds Films, observes that the usefulness of his company's programme became dramatically apparent when a fatality occurred at one of its sites. 'We just didn't have the expertise to deal with the event and its aftermath. Our EAP facility made a great deal of difference.' A death at the workplace is bound to cause shock which is clearly work-related. But could some companies be said to overdo it? Do EAPs merely nanny their employees? Not at all, says Dunlop. 'Whatever the cause of stress, it affects the way people do their jobs. That, to be hard-nosed about it, costs the organisation money.' Indeed, the bottom-line benefits of EAPs are those most often quoted by HR professionals. An EAP typically costs £25-£30 per employee family per year. Stress-related absenteeism alone costs the UK £2-£3 billion a year, according to the CBI, and mental and emotional problems lead to the loss of 40 million working days.

'An EAP is a low-cost investment which provides a significant benefit for both employers and employees,' says the EAPA's Hopkins. Maybe, but perhaps the benefit should not be taken for granted. Usage is not the same as effectiveness, Professor Cooper points out. Questions need to be asked: like 'Is absenteeism falling?' Although 45% of the employers covered by his survey claimed to monitor their counselling facilities, Cooper is sceptical: 'The services were generally not evaluated in a systematic and independent way.'.

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