“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

8 responses

  1. In response to developing major depression/anxiety and PTSD, management kept encouraging me to go to EAP (whcih in a prior experience was a grad psychology student), even though managemen knew I was been treated by a highly-respected and experienced psychiatrst.
    Management’s insistence on EAP seemed more of a way of denying the seriousness of the workplace abuse it was subjectng me to. In addtion, management kept denying my doctor’s assessment — management clamed they doubted my ability “to be rehabilitated” in its words (my offense was speaking up against abuses against my colleagues and myself), even though this was in direct contradiction of what my doctor said (In effect, that I could learn to be silent in this toxic enviironment where my legitimate complaints would not be tolerated, much less
    be attended to — as they weren’t– I ended up being forced to retire earier than I had planned.
    The impression I get is that managemet often uses EAP as it uses HR — management retains control over both and does not have a serious intent that the EAP will really deal with the management abuse
    and its psychological effects.
    This all supports the position that Healthy Workplace Legistlaton needs to be passed; management on its own is not on its own going to stop the epidemic of workplace abuse. As someone whose job gave me PTSD — PTSD, my God — (and about which managemnt expressed absolutely no concer), I know of what I speak,

  2. This is an issue I deal with a lot, David. As a conflict consultant, I often receive calls in which an organization has diagnosed a situation as a “personality conflict” or “communication issue” and, thereby, has decided the remedy is mediation. Mediation may be the next step in a required organizational procedure – a step that must be “checked off.”

    After speaking with the parties, I may discover the issues involve systemic organizational dysfunction (for example, a culture conducive to – and which may even encourage – workplace abuse). The apparent issues between the two parties are merely a symptom of this dysfunction.

    In these cases, I provide an assessment of the situation and may recommend an initial intervention other than mediation (which may include conflict coaching when feasible) and which may include mediation at some point. Of course, it’s up to the organization to decide the next step. However, in situations involving workplace abuse (bullying), I may refuse to provide mediation.

    Thanks very much for this post. I’m looking forward to reading comments from you and others.

  3. Gail, Debra, and Fiona, thank you for your comments. They underscore the overall concern about how EAPs can be used as a diversionary salve. I don’t mean that as a strike against EAP counselors, but rather how the internal mechanisms can be used to avoid tackling the inconvenient, messy matters that may implicate people in power..

  4. David, I have a different take on the EAP programs. In my agency EAP counselors were available to employees with any sort of problem, management had to pay for their transportation to and from the appts, and provide them with free time to attend. I was fortunate that an excellent counselor was available in my area. I went to him before I referred any employees to him. His response to my office situation was: You are not nuts, you’re in a crazy making situation, treat yourself well, try to encourage concerted action. That was the basic info he gave each of the employees I referred to him. In one case he provided documentation for a workman’s comp hearing. In another case he intervened to prevent a suicide. He was a real advocate for the employees and urged concerted action. He helped me to deal with the problem and supported the employees along the way. When the group finally stood up together and said no to the bully – it was the end of the bully’s tyranny. He retired early within a month!

    That said, not all EAP counselors are as good as the one I had access to. I urge union folks to go to the local EAP person first before referring employees. They can make sure that those they refer will get support. Many folks don’t have the money for a private therapist, the EAP counselor may be their only resource. I really think there is a place for a good EAP counselor in dealing with a bullied workforce.

    • Carol, thanks for sharing your story and a better result. I think the key difference there might be the unionized work setting that you described. It changes the dynamic. Furthermore, am I correct in assuming this was a public sector employer? If so, the EAP counselor may well have had more legal protections as well that gave him more job security in his more pro-active mode.

      In any event, that counselor went above and beyond. From stories I’ve heard over the years, he was an exception to the norm. That makes it even more important to share examples of how EA work can be done differently.

  5. Wonderful post David. The EAP counselor I saw was compassionate, but she couldn’t offer any remedy other than to take antidepressants and hang in there. An inherent conflict of interests.

  6. Without prompting, my previous supervisor, her supervisor, and the person running HR each separately recommended I “take advantage” of the institution’s EAP program which was run through the local drug/alcohol treatment center.

    I am more the squeaky clean type and, as respectfully as possible, said “no thanks.” But it seemed rather insulting.

    Ditto on Gail’s sentiments and thanks, Carol, for the bright positive example. Glad it works sometimes.

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