Academic journal article Social Work

The Organization as Client: Broadening the Concept of Employee Assistance Programs

Academic journal article Social Work

The Organization as Client: Broadening the Concept of Employee Assistance Programs

Article excerpt

Although most employee assistance programs (EAPs) focus on the problems of individuals, many are broadening their function to address the rapidly changing human and social issues of the environments in which they operate. Refocusing practice to include the organization as the client establishes an alternative paradigm for conceptualizing practice. This article discusses traditional EAP practice, the evolution of EAPs, the changes confronting corporations, and the alternative paradigm in terms of the opportunities it offers and the risks of adopting it.

One of the more remarkable developments in the delivery system of social services in the 1980s was the widespread establishment of employee assistance programs (EAPs) in American corporations. EAPs have introduced a broad range of social services to the heretofore unrecognized and unserved population of corporate employees. In addition, a growing number of EAPs are involved in activities that address macrolevel organizational and systemic issues at the root of many of the individual problems with which EAPs routinely deal.

Although EAP interventions have been refocused and expanded, organizational or macrolevel activities are neither universally practiced nor universally accepted. Nevertheless, the rapidly changing social and community environments surrounding corporations have thrust a new set of realities on corporations, bringing with them a direct challenge to existing management structures and styles (Handy, 1990; Hersey & Blanchard, 1982; Likert, 1967).


Practice Orientation toward the Individual

Despite conceptual awareness that individual problems take place in a broader context and despite evidence of the influence of environmental factors on behavior, human services programs have traditionally focused on individuals and their interactions. Even community-based social services agencies' attempts to broaden practice by addressing macroissues, such as the federally sponsored community mental health movement of the 1970s, have not maintained a dual focus on the individual and the environment.

Resistance to changing the system runs deep, and the tendency to frame problems within the constructs of the individual is powerful. Similarly, EAP staff primarily assess, treat, or refer individuals for treatment. This individual-focused practice is inadvertently reinforced by the commonly accepted measures of EAP success, such as increasing employees' productivity (by decreasing absenteeism, tardiness, and sick days, for example) and improving cost-benefit ratios. Furthermore, in light of EAPs' central focus on identifying, confronting, and rehabilitating alcoholic employees, it is not surprising that the practice of EAPs has concentrated on the recovery of individuals.

Several other factors have reinforced the practice orientation:

* Reliance on the medical model. Particularly in their treatment of alcoholism, EAPs adhere primarily to a medical model of treatment that focuses on individual problems. Because both the insurance industry and the substance abuse-treatment industry also rely on individually focused treatment, EAPs are continuously interacting with an environment that centers on the treatment of individuals.

* Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) tradition. AA has had a strong and beneficial effect on EAPs. However, its tradition, although structured around group dynamics, emphasizes the recovery of individuals through its 12 steps and does not address the social, cultural, and organizational influences on alcoholism.

* Organizational resistance. All systems, including work organizations, tend to resist change. A focus on individuals, therefore, often demands less organizational effort, keeps the problem outside the boundaries and responsibilities of the corporation, and thus constitutes a more acceptable form of change for the organization.

* Educational background. The education of social workers, psychologists, nurses, and alcoholism counselors generally prepares them to resolve individual problems. …

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