Last year, compensation paid out to employees rose to a staggering £312m. Employee assistance programmes could be just the job to keep the nation's workforce happy and healthy, believes Geraldine O'Sullivan.
At any one time, as many as 25% of a company's employees may be dealing with work or personal issues, such as mental or emotional illness, family distress, alcohol problems, or career and financial stress. Whether the problem originates from work or home, its impact on job performance or workplace behaviour is usually much the same, and can lead to increased absenteeism, morale problems, reduced productivity and workplace accidents.
Are we doing enough to look after our staff when faced with concerns that may affect performance? What can we do to restore and reinforce the health and productivity of our employees in the workplace?
An EAP is fast becoming a key company support mechanism for employees and their immediate families. It provides an avenue to express personal difficulties to an independent third party in confidence, offering advice on issues that employees feel they can not discuss with their manager or human resources department.
An EAP typically offers a range of services that employees can take advantage of, depending on the seriousness of their problem. In all instances, counselling is provided by qualified and experienced specialists. Telephone counselling, which covers general personal or work-related issues, and guidance on legal, financial and consumer issues, is the most widespread service used.
For grave issues, face-to-face counselling is offered. Management support is also provided to companies dealing with challenging workplace problems.
Organisational change is a central workplace issue for many in the insurance sector - be it structural adjustments or external changes resulting from mergers and acquisitions. An EAP programme can help companies amalgamate cultures to the benefit of all parties concerned.
EAPs originated in the US some 30 years ago. Traditionally implemented by larger companies, the appeal widened as firms recognised the value of assisting employees with consultation resources and services. Recently, this interest has spread to the UK. However, in February this year, only 10% of the UK's working population had access to EAP programmes. This was despite employee compensation claims rising from 516 claims in 2000 to over 6000 in 2001.
A well-designed EAP can strengthen employee and workplace productivity, assist managers with employee performance issues, and demonstrate concern for employee well-being. A recent survey conducted by the Employee Assistance Providers Association (EAPA), the UK's professional body for EAPs, found that 77% of the companies questioned operating an EAP programme had experienced improved work productivity. Many also believed the support had positive repercussions on the recruitment and retention of their staff. This is particularly valuable in volatile times, and can be applied to current conditions in the insurance sector. Other indicators include reduced sickness levels and risk/payments from stress claims, lower accident rates, and increased productivity and employee concentration.
What to look for
With several EAP providers operating throughout the UK, it is difficult to know what to look for in a provider. The EAPA is an excellent place to start. Providing standards of practice and support for member development, it can supply details about the services offered by registered UK EAP providers and help companies select one. When choosing a provider, it is important to match the services a company requires with those offered by providers. For companies that have difficulty determining their requirements, the EAPA offers a publication on UK purchasing guidelines.
Events such as the 11 September tragedy and the current economic instability highlight the importance of EAPs' ability to reinstate and improve the well-being and efficiency of employees and the workplace. They provide an alternative avenue for resolving difficulties, and work alongside the company - particularly the HR department, to support the physical and mental health of employees. By recognising and supporting employee needs with a tailored EAP, optimum organisational performance can be achieved, which has to be good for all involved.
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