Friday, 11 February 2011 19:43

Employee Assistance Programmes

Written By: Akabas, Sheila H.
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Employers may recruit workers and trade unions may enlist members, but both get human beings who bring to the workplace all the concerns, problems and dreams characteristic of the human condition. As the world of work has become increasingly conscious that the competitive edge in a global economy depends on the productivity of its work force, the key agents in the workplace—management and labour unions—have devoted significant attention to meeting the needs of those human beings. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), and their parallel in unions, Membership Assistance Programmes (MAPs) (hereafter referred to jointly as EAPs), have developed in workplaces around the world. They constitute a strategic response to meeting the diverse needs of a working population and, more recently, to meeting the humanist agenda of organizations of which they are a part. This article will describe the origins, functions and organization of EAPs. It is written from the point of view of the social worker’s profession, which is the major profession driving this development in the United States and one which, because of its worldwide interconnections, appears to be playing a major role in establishing EAPs worldwide.

The extent of development of employee assistance programmes varies from country to country, reflecting, as David Bargal has pointed out (Bargal 1993), the differences in degree of industrialization, state of the professional training available for appropriate personnel, degree of unionization in the employment sector and societal commitment to social issues, among other variables. His comparison of EAP development in Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and Israel leads him to suggest that although industrialization may be a necessary condition to achieve a high rate of EAPs and MAPs in a country’s workplaces, it may not be sufficient. The existence of these programmes also is characteristic of a society with significant unionization, labour/management cooperation and a well-developed social service sector in which government plays a major role. Further, there is need for a professional culture, supported by an academic specialization that promotes and disseminates social services at the workplace. Bargal concludes that the greater the aggregate of these characteristics in a given nation, the more likely that there will be extensive availability of EAP services in its workplaces.

Diversity is also apparent among programmes within individual countries in relation to structure, staffing, focus and scope of programme. All EAP efforts, however, reflect a common theme. The parties in the workplace seek to provide services to remediate the problems that employees experience, often without causal relationship to their work, that interfere with employees’ productivity on the job and sometimes with their general well-being as well. Observers have noted an evolution in EAP activities. Although the initial impetus may be the control of alcoholism or drug abuse among workers, nevertheless, over time, interest in individual workers becomes more broadly based, and the workers themselves become only one element in a dual focus that embraces the organization as well.

This organizational focus reflects an understanding that many workers are “at risk” of being unable to maintain their work roles and that the “risk” is as much a function of the way the work world is organized as it is a reflection of the individual characteristics of any particular worker. For example, ageing workers are “at risk” if the workplace technology changes and they are denied retraining because of their age. Single parents and caretakers of the elderly are “at risk” if their work environment is so rigid that it does not provide time flexibility in the face of the illness of a dependant. A person with a disability is “at risk” when a job changes and accommodations are not offered to enable the individual to perform in keeping with the new requirements. Many other examples will occur to the reader. What is significant is that, in the matrix of being able to change the individual, the environment, or some combination thereof, it has become increasingly clear that a productive, economically successful work organization cannot be achieved without consideration of the interaction between organization and individual at a policy level.

Social work rests on a model of individual in environment. The evolving definition of “at risk” has enhanced the potential contribution of its practitioners. As Googins and Davidson have noted, the EAP is exposed to a range of problems and issues affecting not only individuals, but also families, the corporation and the communities in which they are located (Googins and Davidson 1993). When a social worker with an organizational and environmental outlook functions in the EAP, that professional is in a unique position to conceptualize interventions that promote not only the EAP’s role in delivery of individual service but in advising on organizational policy in the workplace as well.

History of EAP Development

The origin of social service delivery at the workplace dates back to the time of industrialization. In the craft workshops that marked an earlier period, work groups were small. Intimate relationships existed between the master craftsman and his journeymen and apprentices. The first factories introduced larger work groups and impersonal relationships between employer and employee. As problems that interfered with the workers’ performance became apparent, employers began to provide helping individuals, often called social or welfare secretaries, to assist workers recruited from rural settings, and sometimes new immigrants, with the process of adjusting to formalized workplaces.

This focus on using social workers and other human service providers to achieve acculturation of new populations to the demands of factory labour continues internationally to this day. Several nations, for example Peru and India, legally require that work settings that exceed a particular employment level provide a human service worker to be available to replace the traditional support structure that was left behind in the home or rural environment. These professionals are expected to respond to the needs presented by the newly recruited, largely displaced rural residents in relation to concerns of everyday living such as housing and nutrition as well as those involving illness, industrial accidents, death and burial.

As the challenges involved in maintaining a productive work force evolved, a different set of issues asserted itself, warranting a somewhat different approach. EAPs probably represent a discontinuity from the earlier welfare secretary model in that they are more clearly a programmatic response to the problems of alcoholism. Pressed by the need to maximize productivity during the Second World War, employers “attacked” the losses resulting from alcohol abuse among workers by establishing occupational alcoholism programmes in the major production centres of the Western Allies. The lessons learned from the effective efforts at containing alcoholism, and the concomitant improvement in the productivity of the workers involved, received recognition after the War. Since that time, there has been a slow but steady increase in service delivery programmes worldwide that make use of the employment site as an appropriate location and centre of support for remediating problems that are identified as causes of major drains in productivity.

This trend has been aided by the development of multinational corporations that tend to replicate an effective effort, or a legally required system, in all their corporate units. They have done so almost without regard to the programme’s relevance or cultural appropriateness to the particular country in which the unit is located. For example, South African EAPs resemble those in the United States, a state of affairs accountable in part by the fact that the earliest EAPs were established in the local outposts of multinational corporations that are headquartered in the United States. This cultural crossover has been positive in that it has fostered replication of the best of each country on a worldwide scale. An example is the sort of preventive action, in relation to sexual harassment or labour force diversity issues that have come to prominence in the United States, that has become the standard to which American corporate units around the world are expected to adhere. These provide models for some local firms to establish comparable initiatives.

Rationale for EAPs

EAPs may be differentiated by their stage of development, programme philosophy or definition of what problems are appropriate to address and what services are acceptable responses. Most observers would agree, however, that these occupational interventions are expanding in scope in the countries that have already established such services, and are incipient in those nations that have yet to establish such initiatives. As already indicated, one reason for expansion can be traced to the widespread understanding that drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is a significant problem, costing lost time and high medical care expenses and seriously interfering with productivity.

But EAPs have grown in response to a wide array of changing conditions that cross national boundaries. Unions, pressed to offer benefits to maintain the loyalty of their members, have viewed EAPs as a welcome service. Legislation on affirmative action, family leave, worker’s compensation and welfare reform all involve the workplace in a human service outlook. The empowerment of working populations and the search for gender equity that are needed for employees to function effectively in the team environment of the modern production machine, are aims that are well served by the availability of destigmatized, universal social service delivery systems that can be established in the world of work. Such systems also help with the recruitment and retention of a quality labour force. EAPs have also filled the gap in community services that exists, and seems to be increasing, in many nations of the world. The spread of, and desire to contain HIV/AIDS, as well as the growing interest in prevention, wellness and safety in general, have each contributed support to the educational role of EAPs in the world’s workplaces.

EAPs have proven a valuable resource in helping workplaces respond to the pressure of demographic trends. Such changes as the increase in single parenthood, in the employment of mothers (whether of infants or of young children), and in the number of two-worker families have required attention. The ageing of the population and the interest in reducing welfare dependency through maternal employment—facts that are apparent in most industrialized countries—have involved the workplace in roles that require assistance from human service providers. And, of course, the ongoing problem of drug and alcohol abuse that has reached epidemic proportions in many countries, has been a major concern of work organizations. A survey examining public perception of the drug crisis in 1994 as compared with five years earlier found that 50% of respondents felt it was much greater, an additional 20% felt it was somewhat greater, only 24% considered it the same and the remaining 6% felt it had declined. While each of these trends varies from country to country, all exist across countries. Most are characteristic of the industrialized world where EAPs have already developed. Many can be observed in the developing countries that are experiencing any significant degree of industrialization.

Functions of EAPs

The establishment of an EAP is an organizational decision that represents a challenge to the existing system. It suggests that the workplace has not attended adequately to the needs of individuals. It confirms the mandate for employers and trade unions, in their own organizational interest, to respond to the broad social forces at work in society. It is an opportunity for organizational change. Though resistance may occur, as it does in all situations where systemic change is attempted, the trends described earlier provide many reasons why EAPs can be successful in their quest for offering both counselling and advocacy services to individuals and policy advice to the organization.

The kinds of functions EAPs serve reflect the presenting issues to which they seek to respond. Probably every programme extant deals with drug and alcohol abuse. Interventions in this connection usually include assessment, referral, training for supervisors and operation of support groups to maintain employment and encourage abstinence. The service agenda of most EAPs, however, is more broadranging. Programmes offer counselling to those experiencing marital problems or difficulties with children, those needing help with finding day care or those making decisions concerning elder care for a family member. Some EAPs have been asked to deal with work environment issues. Their response is to give help to families adjusting to relocation, to bank employees who experience robberies and need trauma debriefing, to disaster crews, or to health care workers accidentally exposed to HIV infection. Assistance in coping with “downsizing” is supplied, too, to both those laid off and the survivors of such lay-offs. EAPs may be called on to assist with organizational change to meet affirmative action goals or to serve as case managers in achieving accommodation and return to work for employees who become disabled. EAPs have been enlisted in preventive activities as well, including good nutrition and smoking cessation programmes, encouraging participation in exercise regimes or other parts of health promotion efforts, and offering educational initiatives that can range from parenting programmes to preparation for retirement.

Although these EAP responses are multifaceted, they typify EAPs as widespread as Hong Kong and Ireland. Studying a non-random sample of American employers, trade unions and contractors who deliver EAP drug and alcohol abuse services, for example, Akabas and Hanson (1991) found that plans in a variety of industries, with different histories and under various auspices, all conform to each other in important ways. The researchers, expecting that there would be a wide variety of creative responses to dealing with workplace needs, identified, on the contrary, an astounding uniformity of programme and practice. At an International Labour Organization (ILO) international conference convoked in Washington, D.C. to compare national initiatives, a similar degree of uniformity was confirmed throughout western Europe (Akabas and Hanson 1991).

Respondents in the surveyed work organizations in the United States agreed that legislation has had a significant impact on determining the components of their programmes and the rights and expectations of client populations. In general, programmes are staffed by professionals, more often social workers than professionals of any other discipline. They respond to a broad constituency of workers, and often their family members, with services that provide diverse care for a range of presenting problems in addition to their focus on rehabilitation of alcohol and drug abusers. Most programmes overcome general inattention by top management and inadequate training for and support from supervisors, to achieve penetration rates of between 3 and 5% of the total workers at the target site. The professionals who staff the EAP and MAP movements seem to agree that confidentiality and trust are the keys to effective service. They claim success in dealing with the problems of drug and alcohol abuse although they can point to few evaluative studies to confirm the efficacy of their intervention in relation to any aspect of service delivery.

Estimates suggest that there are as many as 10,000 EAPs now in operation in settings throughout the United States alone. Two main types of service delivery systems have evolved, the one directed by an inhouse staff and the other provided by an outside contractor that offers service to numerous work organizations (employers and trade unions) at the same time. There is a raging debate as to the relative merits of internal versus external programmes. Claims of increased protection of confidentiality, greater diversity of staff and clarity of role undiluted by other activities, are made for external programmes. Advocates of internal programmes point to the advantage conferred by their position within the organization with respect to effective intervention at the systems level and to the policy-making influence that they have gained as a result of their organizational knowledge and involvement. Since organization-wide initiatives are increasingly valued, internal programmes are probably better for those worksites that have sufficient demand (at least 1,000 employees) to warrant a full-time staffer. This arrangement allows, as Googins and Davidson (1993) point out, improved access to employees because of the varied services that can be offered and the opportunity it affords to exert influence on policymakers, and it facilitates collaboration and integration of the EAP function with others in the organization—all of these capabilities strengthen the authority and role of the EAP.

Work and Family Issues: A Case in Point

The interaction of EAPs, over time, with work and family issues provides an informative example of the evolution of EAPs and of their potential for individual and organizational impact. EAPs developed, historically speaking, parallel with the period during which women entered the labour market in increasing numbers, especially single mothers and mothers of infants and young children. These women often experienced tension between their family demands for dependant care—whether children or the elderly—and their job requirements in a work environment in which the roles of work and family were considered to be separate, and management was inhospitable to the need for flexibility with respect to work and family issues. Where there was an EAP, the women brought their problems to it. EAP staffers identified that women under stress became depressed and sometimes coped with this depression by drug and alcohol abuse. Early EAP responses involved counselling on drug and alcohol abuse, education about time management, and referral to child and elder care resources.

As the number of clients with similar presenting problems mounted, EAPs carried out needs assessments that pointed to the importance of moving from case to class, that is, they began to look for group rather than individual solutions, offering, for example, group sessions on coping with stress. But even this proved to be an inadequate approach to problem resolution. With an understanding that needs differ across the life cycle, EAPs began thinking about their client population in age-related cohorts that had different requirements. Young parents needed flexible leave to care for sick children and easy access to child care information. Those in their middle thirties to late forties were identified as the “sandwich generation”; at their time of life, the twofold demands of adolescent children and ageing relatives increased the need for an array of support services that included education, referral, leave, family counselling and abstinence assistance, among others. The mounting pressures experienced by ageing workers who face the onset of disability, the need to accommodate to a work world in which almost all one’s associates, including one’s supervisors, are younger than oneself, while planning for retirement and dealing with their frail elderly relatives (and sometimes with the parenting demands of the children of their children), create yet another set of burdens. The conclusion drawn from monitoring these individual needs and the service response to them was that what was required was a change in workplace culture that integrated the work and family lives of employees.

This evolution has led directly to the emergence of the EAP’s current role with respect to organizational change. During the process of meeting individual needs, it is probable that any given EAP has built up credibility within the system and is regarded by the key people as the source of knowledge about work and family issues. Likely, it has served an educational and informational role in response to questions raised by managers in numerous departments affected by the problems that occur when these two aspects of human life are experienced in conflict with each other. The EAP has probably collaborated with many organizational actors, including affirmative action officers, industrial relations experts, union representatives, training specialists, safety and health personnel, the medical department staff, risk managers and other human resource personnel, and fiscal workers, and line managers and supervisors.

A force field analysis, a technique suggested in the 1950s by Kurt Lewin (1951), provides a framework for defining the activities necessary to undertake to produce organizational change. The occupational health professional should understand where there will be support within the organization to resolve work and family issues on a systemic basis, and where there might be opposition to such a policy approach. A force field analysis should identify the key actors in the corporation, union or government agency who will influence change, and the analysis will summarize the promoting and restraining forces that will influence these actors in relation to work and family policy.

A sophisticated outcome of an organizational approach to work and family issues will have the EAP participating in a policy committee that establishes a statement of purpose for the organization. The policy should recognize the dual interests of its employees in being both productive workers and effective family participants. Expressed policy should indicate the organization’s commitment to establishing a flexible climate and work culture in which such dual roles can exist in harmony. Then an array of benefits and programmes may be specified to fulfil that commitment including, but not limited to, flexible work schedules, job sharing and part-time employment options, subsidized or onsite child care, an advice and referral service to assist with other child and eldercare needs, family leave with and without pay to cover demands deriving from illness of a relative, scholarships for children’s education and for employees’ own development, and individual counselling and group support systems for the variety of presenting problems experienced by family members. These manifold initiatives related to work and family issues would combine to allow a total individual and environmental response to the needs of workers and their work organizations.


There is ample experiential evidence to suggest that the provision of these benefits assists workers to their goal of productive employment. Yet these benefits have the potential to become costly programmes and they offer no guarantee that work will be performed in an effective and efficient manner as a result of their implementation. Like the EAPs that foster them, work and family benefits must be assessed for their contribution to the organization’s effectiveness as well as to the well-being of its many constituencies. The uniformity of development, described earlier, can be interpreted as support for the fundamental value of EAP services across work places, employers and nations. As the world of work becomes increasingly demanding in the era of a competitive global economy, and as the knowledge and skill that workers bring to the job becomes more important than their mere presence or physical strength, it seems safe to predict that EAPs will be called upon increasingly to provide guidance to organizations in fulfilling their humanist responsibilities to their employees or members. In such an individual and environmental approach to problem solving, it seems equally safe to predict that social workers will play a key role in service delivery.



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Part I. The Body
Part II. Health Care
First Aid & Emergency Medical Services
Health Protection & Promotion
Occupational Health Services
Part III. Management & Policy
Part IV. Tools and Approaches
Part V. Psychosocial and Organizational Factors
Part VI. General Hazards
Part VII. The Environment
Part VIII. Accidents and Safety Management
Part IX. Chemicals
Part X. Industries Based on Biological Resources
Part XI. Industries Based on Natural Resources
Part XII. Chemical Industries
Part XIII. Manufacturing Industries
Part XIV. Textile and Apparel Industries
Part XV. Transport Industries
Part XVI. Construction
Part XVII. Services and Trade
Part XVIII. Guides

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