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Why Don't Employees Use EAP Services?

How can we get more employees to reach out for help when they are under stress?

If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider - and many do - you may already know it has great value as a coaching resource, as a career-rescue tool, and as a literal lifesaver for employees who are under severe personal and professional stress. I’ve used EAP counseling when I was in law enforcement and found it useful (for those things I saw in the field that I don’t want to see again, least of all in my dreams). I tell the participants in my training classes that I’ve used EAP and I emphasize that it’s okay to reach out for help. Yet some EAPs are under-used. Why?

There are really four reasons why employees don’t use EAP and I’ll list them in the most-frequent order: they don’t think it’s confidential; they feel there is a stigma for reaching out for help (especially for some men, who see this as a weakness); they think they have to ask permission from their boss or HR; or they don’t know it exists. Let’s tackle each one.

First, company stakeholders need to continually educate employees about how EAP works, starting with the fact that it is absolutely confidential (unless the client wants to harm himself or herself or others, then the therapist has a duty to warn or intervene). We need to remind our employees that no reports come back to the organization and that there is no external record of their use of the EAP.

Second, it makes sense to reassure employees that every one of us has similar on and off-the-job struggles. It’s no sin for people to reach out for help when the “allostatic load” (as our psychologist friends like to call it) gets piled too high and deep. Tell your employees what subjects EAP covers, including: financial problems, marital issues, raising children or step-children, blended families, sick kids, cancer, stress-related illness, parents with Alzheimer’s, grief from death or loss, at-work or line of duty deaths, gambling problems, money worries, substance abuse, eating disorders, job burnout, workplace conflicts, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Each of these concerns can be addressed urgently and competently by EAP professionals, who may have a list of resources where they can refer the employee as well.

Third, just as the use of EAP is confidential, there is no need for employees to tell anyone, ask permission, go through HR channels, or do anything other than call the EAP phone number and make an appointment. Many EAP providers are quite flexible. They will work with some employees at their therapist offices; they will work with the employee over the phone if that’s desired; or they can even meet the employee at the worksite. (Counseling an employee on the job - typically during a lunch break and in a private room - may be a necessity for the safety of all involved in a domestic violence situation where the employee cannot go to a therapy appointment.)

Lastly, the idea where the employee does not know about EAP services puzzles me the most. The program often gets a mention in new-employee orientation sessions, it’s common to see posters and brochures in the breakrooms, and forward-thinking EAP providers will come to the organization and do lunchtime presentations to introduce themselves and offer help on a variety of stressors.

My claim to fame (however modest) is that in 1994, I co-wrote one of the first business books on workplace violence. For the

book, I interviewed workplace double-murderer, Robert Mack. He was a 25-year employee of General Dynamics in San Diego, and he killed the labor relations manager handling his termination case and shot and wounded his boss, who later died. During my prison interview with him, he told me he had suffered from depression, had psychotic breaks with reality, and had a cocaine addiction. I asked him why he didn’t reach out for EAP help and he told me he hadn’t known about it. EAP services were at General Dynamics 17 of his 25 years there. Sometimes we must lead the horses to the water.

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