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EAPs in the world of work: employers increasingly view workers as an asset to be enhanced rather than a cost to be controlled. Understanding this trend can help EA professionals focus their knowledge of human behavior on performance and productivity.

Mention the words "employee assistance program" to many human resources managers and you'll receive a lackluster response. In their view, an EAP is a "nice-to-have" service that is included in a complete suite of benefits but is not necessarily essential or particularly valuable. Like many others within work organizations, HR managers often perceive EAPs simply as a counseling service related to the employer's health benefit plan and, thus, a cost to be minimized.

Why are EA professionals finding it difficult to generate excitement in our customer base? Perhaps it is because we have drifted away from our foundation in the "world of work" and lost the ability to demonstrate how our unique skills and approaches can help the workplace. This article suggests ways to overcome thee obstacles and find opportunities in the world of work by--

* Understanding the importance of investing in human capital;

* Recognizing trends affecting people at work; and

* Using the essence of employee assistance to meet emerging needs.

EAPS AND THE WORLD OF WORK

Most of us would agree that EAPs are part of the world of work but also part of the world of healthcare. In recent years, as EAPs became more fully integrated with managed behavioral healthcare, they drifted away from the workplace to define themselves as a healthcare service. A number of EAPs were very successful in developing "gatekeeper models" that helped employers reduce healthcare costs. Integrated EAP and managed behavioral healthcare services became a common model of EAP service delivery in the United States.

Aligning EAPs too closely with healthcare, however, has its consequences. Healthcare benefits costs are rising again, forcing employers to continually reassess which healthcare benefits they will provide and how they will pay for them. In this business climate, managed behavioral healthcare services and EAPs have experienced price decreases, leading to the current commodity pricing environment.

Tying EAPs too closely to healthcare in this environment is risky. Healthcare systems change; what doesn't change is an employer's need for a healthy and productive workforce. We must realize that productivity depends on human activity, and EA professionals have a unique understanding of human behavior in the workplace. Thus, EAPs are positioned most strongly when they are clearly understood to be part of the world of work rather than the world of healthcare.

VIEWING WORKERS AS AN ASSET

For EA professionals, the key concept to understand is that workers in an organization are an asset to be enhanced and in which to invest, not a cost to be managed and controlled. The concept of investing in human capital is gaining ground in the business world. Research by Watson Wyatt has linked effective human capital management with higher stock values, prompting many employers to reassess their approach to their human resources.

Placing human talent on the asset side of a cost accounting equation rather than the liability side has a significant impact. Work organizations seek to grow their assets and reduce their liabilities. If we in the EAP field continue to think of people as costs to be managed rather than assets to be enhanced, we will miss out on a significant trend.

Viewing people as an asset has major implications for the work environment. Consider this definition: An organization's human capital is the collective value of the experience, skills, talents, knowledge, creativity, energy, enthusiasm, engagement, and relationships that its people choose to invest in their work.

This definition contains a key concept. People--you and I--decide how much of our experience and talent to invest in our work. What helps us invest more of ourselves in our organization? What can our employers do to promote and enhance our value and that of our co-workers? How can EAPs help employers and employees enhance the value of the individual and collective human capital of work organizations?

THE ESSENCE OF EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE

To answer these questions, let us reflect on the essence of employee assistance. (Note: By "essence" I do not mean the Core Technology functions or the Standards and Professional Guidelines, but a more fundamental description of the basis for what we provide to the workplace, as first described by John Maynard.) The essence of employee assistance is the application of knowledge about behavior and behavioral health to make accurate assessments, followed by appropriate action to improve the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace.

Assessment is a critical added value that EA professionals provide, and it should be focused not only on clinical needs but also on workplace needs. We assess not just individuals but families, teams, and work organizations. We assess not only the nature of personal concerns but also needs for coaching or leadership development. We recommend action in several forms: counseling, of course, but also team building, planning for high-potential employees, and disaster preparedness.

If we apply our knowledge of human behavior in the workplace to the concept of human capital enhancement, we will find ourselves in front of the human resources curve rather than behind it. Too often in recent years, EAPs have reacted to workplace trends rather than anticipated them. It is time for us to be more proactive.

WORKPLACE TRENDS TO WATCH

What are some of the trends that are affecting people and their work environments? How will these trends help us identify opportunities to apply the essence of employee assistance in the workplace?

A key issue is overwork. A survey by the Families and Work Institute found that 28 percent of employees felt overworked often or very often in the past three months, while 54 percent felt overworked at least a few times in the same period. A major factor in feeling overworked is a loss of control over work--survey respondents who said they have control over their work did not report feeling as overworked, even if they worked very hard.

Overwork and stress are closely related, especially when the feeling of overwork becomes chronic. Stress, meanwhile, is linked to decreased productivity and increased healthcare costs. A 1998 study by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) found that 18 percent of 46,000 employees reported uncontrolled stress, and the adjusted annual healthcare expenditures of these individuals were 46 percent higher than for those who were not stressed.

Overwork and stress are exacerbated by communication overload--too many messages coming in too rapidly. In many companies, employees (especially managers) send e-mails at all hours of the day and night and expect recipients to respond quickly. Workers feel pressured to respond to e-mails from home, while traveling, and even during vacations and holidays. As a result, communication itself often suffers as people make decisions without reflection and respond to messages in a tone they would not use if speaking in person. Miscommunication is a common result of the communication overload.

Concern with workplace stress is a global phenomenon. The International Labor Organization and the European Commission are both concerned about workplace stress, and the latter has just released a pamphlet titled "Guidance on Work-Related Stress." Stress presents an opportunity for EAPs to help address a worldwide concern.

Another trend is the growing need for knowledge workers. People today must invest not only their muscles, but also their minds, in their work. U.S. automakers report, for example, that an increasing percentage of a car's value derives not from its parts or its manufacturing but from the knowledge process, meaning design and engineering.

Utilizing knowledge workers to their full potential is critical. Workers who are present at the workplace but not fully engaged in their work (a phenomenon sometimes called "presenteeism") represent an added cost for employers. Traditional absenteeism is also a problem. For example, employers in Sweden report concerns not only about mental presence at work but also about a 100 percent increase in absenteeism over the last five years.

Responding to these and other trends will lead us into closer collaboration with workplace professionals who focus on work/life, diversity, safety, occupational health, and related issues. For example, work/life professionals think in terms of positive work environments, engagement, and commitment and thereby seek to understand how the manner in which work is performed can be modified to improve work/life balance. EA professionals bring another set of skills to this discussion--a specific knowledge of behavior and the ability to use that knowledge in making assessments and developing action plans.

RESILIENCE AND EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT

Facing the challenges of employee overwork and stress and needing to hire and retain knowledge workers, many organizations are realizing that resilience holds the key to future success. Both organizations and individuals need to be resilient, and building resilience requires understanding human behavior. It is not sufficient simply to offer programs such as EAPs or childcare referral services; work organizations must actually support employee resilience, while individual workers must make full use of available resources.

A resilient employee is physically healthy, manages stress well, is flexible, is supported by the work environment, has some control over his/her work, is treated with respect, and is viewed as an important asset within the workplace. Obviously, an employee is less resilient if s/he is dealing with depression, alcoholism, divorce, or other personal problems. EA professionals have an excellent opportunity to collaborate with work/life and other professionals to apply our knowledge of human behavior (both individual and organizational) to enhance employee and employer resilience.

Another opportunity for EAPs lies in the area of employee and leadership development. An employer's ability to retain valuable workers is critical, as is the ability to invest in and expand the skills of these workers. To do this, employers consider options such as career counseling, mentoring, coaching, identifying high-potential employees, and succession planning.

Business coaching is a service that EA professionals easily can provide using their knowledge of human behavior. However, because coaching is often perceived as a frivolous "advice" service, EAPs need to deliver competency-based coaching linked to the skill sets needed by the organization. Offering business coaching that is coordinated with organizational development initiatives provides EAPs with a new product line, presents them with an opportunity to better understand the organizational culture, and enables them to cultivate a positive image within the organization.

CREATING ADDED VALUE

These examples demonstrate that EA professionals who apply their knowledge of behavior and behavioral health to improve the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace can add value to work organizations. If we focus on human capital as an organizational asset and pay attention to trends in the workplace, we can apply the essence of employee assistance to make assessments and develop action plans that truly meet the needs of the workplace.

By positioning EAPs within the world of work, EA professionals can become performance consultants to work organizations in all areas where human behavior affects productivity While continuing to stove individual employees, we can create added value--and charge for it--by meeting the needs of our organizational customers.

(Note: For research on human capital management, visit Watson Wyatt at www.watsonwyatt.com. For data on stress and healthcare costs, visit the Health Enhancement Research Organization at www.the-hero.org. For studies on overwork and work/life balance, visit the Families and Work Institute at www.familiesandwork.org. For information on work-related stress in Europe, visit the European Commission at www.europa.eu.int and see the section on employment and social health.)

Brenda Blair is president of Blair Consulting Group, Inc. in College Station, Texas. Her company provides strategic consulting to EAP and work/life companies worldwide. This article draws on concepts presented by the author and John Maynard at two recent EA conferences and discussed in two magazine articles: "Understanding the Essence of Employee Assistance" by John Maynard (Journal of Employee Assistance, 2nd quarter 2003) and "Providing Added Value to Employers" by Brenda Blair (EAPA Exchange, March/April 2002).
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:The Tug-Of-War For The EAP Identiy; Employee Assistance Programs
Author:Blair, Brenda
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:1956
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