EAPs Tout the Benefits of Dial-Up Counseling in Place of Face-to-Face

By Rafter, Michelle V. | Workforce Management, November 2004 | Go to article overview

EAPs Tout the Benefits of Dial-Up Counseling in Place of Face-to-Face


Rafter, Michelle V., Workforce Management


HEALTH-CARE BENEFITS

Proponents love teletherapy, but skeptics say it's untested and offered only to curb costs

THE TELEPHONE HAS LONG BEEN a Supporting player in employee assistance programs. For years, companies have relied on toll-free hotlines staffed 24/7 to field employees' calls about job stress, divorce, addiction and other problems, and then refer them to the appropriate professionals for face-to-face help.

More recently, the phone has graduated to a starring role, as some companies advance from using it as a referral tool to integrating telephone therapy into their EAP-based work/life and mental-health offerings. In what's been dubbed teletherapy or telecounseling, instead of an office visit, mental-health professionals working in off-site call centers conduct counseling sessions with employees who phone in from home, the office or the road. All but the most serious problems-such as severe addiction or depression-are being dealt with this way, through one-time or multiple, long-term phone sessions. Most teletherapy benefits, which can also include e-mail and Internet-based help, come from third-party EAP vendors or managed-care companies, which the vast majority of Fortune 1000 companies contract with to provide EAP services.

The development isn't without controversy. Opinions are strongly divided over the effectiveness of teletherapy and the motives for offering it. Proponents claim that phone-based counseling gives people faster access to help, leading to higher usage and success rates, and ultimately increased worker productivity. They say it's especially well suited to companies with workers in rural areas underserved by mental-health professionals, or businesses with employees who travel or are spread across the country.

But opponents claim that without face-to-face interaction, it's easier to miss or misdiagnose problems. They're troubled by confidentiality and licensing questions surrounding phone-based therapy, and point to the lack of empirical evidence to support outside EAP vendors' claims of success. They maintain that because most outside contractors are paid a set amount per employee per year regardless of use, vendors offer teletherapy because it's cheaper, and lower costs translate to higher profits. Companies "are being sold a bill of goods that the telephone is as good as in person," says David Sharar, who calls himself the Ralph Nader of the EAP industry. "My argument is it should be an adjunct, not a replacement."

In many cases, changes are occurring beneath the radar of corporate human resources departments. Proponents and critics alike agree that many human resources managers don't keep abreast of changes in the delivery of EAP services. "You'll find companies that don't know that it's a problem," says Sharar, managing director of the EAP division of Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington, Illinois.

But teletherapy backers say that human resources managers care more about having services available and getting positive outcomes than how the services are offered. "I really haven't been with any clients that have proposed we go with one over the other," says Chuck Taylor, executive vice president of the employer solutions division of ValueOptions in Norfolk, Virginia, a top EAP outsourcer.

Some of the uncertainties surrounding the treatment method are being addressed. A trickle of scientific research is making its way into publication. At least one EAP trade association is updating practice standards to include specific guidelines for teletherapy.

Meanwhile, the debate isn't stopping vendors from rolling out the next generation of teletherapy services, in which e-mail and Web-based counseling play an even larger role in treating things like diabetes, obesity and smoking.

A CONVERT AT BRIDGESTONE

Ron Tepner was one of the skeptics. As vice president of human resources at BPS Retail and Commercial Operations, an subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas, Tepner provides EAP to 22,000 employees in 2,000 Bridgestone tire stores throughout the country. …

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