EAP professionals provide guidance through crisis

When a worker has a personal problem, employee assistance program pros help both the employee and employer.

EAP professionals provide guidance through crisis

A factory worker shows up for his shift smelling of alcohol. An office worker doesn't heed a warning to stop gambling on his company computer. A manager having problems with her troubled teen becomes withdrawn and short-tempered on the job.

In each situation, an employee assistance program (EAP) professional can play a role in saving a worker's job and averting an employer's headache. EAP professionals -- who are predominantly social workers but may also be psychologists, substance-abuse counselors, psychiatric nurses or other mental health practitioners -- help employees identify and resolve personal matters and help companies address productivity concerns.

"An EAP provider not only deals with everyday issues like marital problems, depression and anxiety, but the notion that these things show up in the workplace," says Stanley Hyman, LCSW, a Miami-based private practitioner who treats clients referred by EAPs and director of the Aventura Stress Relief Center. "We need to understand the dynamic of how these issues affect not only the individual and their family but their company and coworkers."

Employment Options

EAP professionals are employed in a variety of ways. Social workers and other mental health professionals in private practice may be contracted to work with employees of specific corporations, or they may be on the provider lists of large behavioral health companies that manage hundreds of EAPs. Other professionals may work in-house at large corporations. Salaries vary depending on the employment situation.

"Companies call on EAPs to deal with employee catastrophes that occur daily," says Jim Hardeman, LICSW, MPA, who was an in-house EAP professional at Polaroid for 15 years before opening his own consulting company, Workplace Violence Prevention, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. At Polaroid, Hardeman helped launch the company's first internal support group for battered women and crafted policies and procedures on how the company should respond to domestic violence incidents.

EAP professionals have a dual role, Hardeman explains. They counsel employees, but they also must work with employers, including managers and administrators, to intervene appropriately with troubled workers and to create positive work environments.

All interactions between EAP professionals and employees are confidential, says M. Faye McAneny, LCSW-C, a certified employee assistance professional (CEAP) who works part-time for the Magellan Behaviorial Health division of Magellan Health Services, a company that manages EAPs. EAP services are usually free to the employee and voluntary, although an employee may be referred to the program by his manager or human resources department, says McAneny, who also provides employee assistance services through her private practice in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Crisis Support

McAneny counsels employees with difficulties ranging from financial concerns to serious medical problems. "EAP services are almost always short-term," she says. "We don't provide long-term therapy. That's usually what health plans are for."

Often, McAneny refers employees to treatment programs or counselors for long-term therapy and then meets monthly with her referrals to track their progress. McAneny also provides crisis support services. For example, she debriefs armored-car drivers after a robbery. "I'll talk about the normal reactions people have in such situations and give the drivers an opportunity to vent without management around," she says. "I'll help them develop concrete ideas of what they can do as a group to make sure they take care of each other."

McAneny worked with postal workers after anthrax was found in the ventilation system of a Washington, DC, postal building in 2001. "There was a lot of hardship, as many workers were being deployed to alternate sites up to 40 miles away," she says. "Again, I gave people an opportunity to air their concerns."

Clinical Expertise

Most EAP social workers have several years of clinical experience, often in substance abuse. They must identify and treat problems quickly, Hardeman says, and frequently make clinical decisions without supervision. Flexibility, good listening skills and stamina are also essential for an aspiring employee assistance professional, McAneny adds.

A few social work master's-degree programs, including the one at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, offer special tracks and certificates in employee assistance. In addition, social workers and other counseling professionals can be credentialed as CEAPs through the Employee Assistance Certification Commission of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.