Firms Tap Employee Assistance Programs

Article excerpt

By Mary Rowland

N.Y. Times News Service

When a partner at Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill., died last month at the age of 37, the firm's management turned to Michael Houle, regional director of Perspectives Ltd., an employee assistance program, to help employees deal with their grief.

Houle held counseling sessions with employees, in groups. "You let them talk about what they thought and help them go through a grieving process so that they can move past it," said Houle.

In these days of increasing costs, and shrinking payoffs, from traditional corporate benefits packages, there is another source to tap: the employee assistance programs, or EAP.

The progams are offering a broad range of new services, including everything from workplace trauma to advice on care for preschool children and elderly parents and support groups on dealing with infection with HIV.

The programs were set up in the 1940s chiefly to deal with alcoholic employees, who were simply ordered to get help. The programs developed something of a negative image.

"Initially EAPs were looked at as tools of management," said Barbara D. Levine, a healthre consultant with Hewitt in Rowayton, Conn. "Employees mistrusted them." And there was a stigma attached to going to the employee assistance program, too. "People knew you weren't performing well," she said.

Employers still use the program to keep employees productive. But today both employers and employee assistance programs are more aware of the subtleties that affect performance, and of relatively lowst ways to help.

"EAPs are still designed to make employees happier and more productive so they can be at work," said Patricia A. Wiley, managing consultant in the New York office of Foster Higgins. "But they provide many more services."

The effect has not been lost on employers _ 79 percent of the 1,006 firms surveyed by Hewitt this year offer an employee assistance program, up from just 47 percent in 1986. And you might be surprised at the help you have available at no charge.

Houle says the problems employees bring to him "can be anything from: `It seems to be raining a lot and I don't feel happy about it,' to `Our daughter just died and we can't cope.' "

Dr. John F. Bunker, a consultant at Wyatt Co., benefits consultants based in Washington, noted that some employee assistance programs "have on their staff an attorney and dedicated work and family units that can help with child care and elder care issues and even financial planners."

These services are typically provided by an outside vendor such as Houle's firm that contracts with the employer to counsel employees. However, some employers set up an inuse employee assistance program, hiring counselors to work at the company. …