Assistance Programs Can Be a Mixed Blessing

Article excerpt

NEW YORK _ Robert Bratt felt he had been wronged. He believed his employer of 12 years, International Business Machines Co., had implemented one of his ideas without giving him credit. He appealed to superiors, but felt justice was not served.

Upset about what he considered unfair treatment, he became deeply depressed and could not work. IBM asked him to see a company doctor, who after a halfhour meeting with Bratt told executives he was paranoid and mentally unstable.

Based on that diagnosis, IBM asked Bratt to take a leave of absence. He sued IBM, charging his privacy had been violated by the doctor's report, which he had believed would be confidential under company policy.

Increasingly, employees are telling personal problems to company counselors and doctors in employee assistance programs, known as EAPs. Presented as free employee benefits, EAPs are designed in part to help cut a company's medical and mental health expenses and improve worker productivity.

Although EAPs can often help employees through difficult periods, and are frequently the only care they can afford, lawyers charge EAPs are sometimes used wrongly by managers and employee privacy is not always guaranteed.

"EAPs can be an effective way of providing services to employees," said Russ Newman, executive director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. "But it is important (that) providers let employees know the limits of confidentiality."

The Hay Group, a management consulting firm, estimates about 68 percent of companies now offer such services, which include psychiatric help, financial counseling, assistance with family problems and alcohol and substance abuse treatment.

Use of the programs has increased in the past few years, as company restructurings and layoffs led to a dramatic increase in workplace stress and violence.

Changes at work have affected employee morale, their personal lives and in some cases have led to increases in drinking, substance abuse and marital discord, said N. Elizabeth Fried, a management consultant based in Dublin, Ohio. That has meant a cost to employers in absenteeism, decreased productivity and more worker compensation claims.

At IBM, the EAP is available to all employees and gives them a way to deal with personal issues they don't feel comfortable talking to supervisors about, said Harry Newman, a senior IBM human resources adviser. Whatever occurs between the employee and EAP professionals is held in the strictest confidence, he said.

The company had no comment on Bratt's suit, which was settled out of court after eight years.

Most EAPs are intended to help employers as well as employees.

"The goal is to allow employees to solve their personal problems so they don't impact work," said Dr. Richard Chaifetz, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based ComPsych Behavioral Health Corp., a leading EAP.

And while private visits to mental health professionals for employees can be costly to companies, an EAP charges employers usually about $2 to $3 per month per employee, Chaifetz said. That represents a savings to the employer of three to seven times the investment, he said.

EAPs can also be crucial in helping employees resolve problems before reaching the point of violence, Fried said.

EAPs are available to employees in a variety of forms. Contacts can be initiated by the employee or a family member, as they are in between 50 and 70 percent of cases, Chaifetz said, or by someone in the workplace.

In many companies with EAPs, managers are trained to identify troubled employees and then refer them for assistance.

But lawyers and benefits specialists have a caveat for employees who consider using EAPs. …