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Use Employee Assistance Programs: The Secret For Stress Relief Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Free Counselling Can Help Take Pressure Off When You Need It Most

Raise your hand if you've ever gone for counselling. What's that I see? Arms still planted firmly at your sides? Hopefully your life is so trouble-free you've never had to reach out for help. Or is it that, like most of us, you'd rather admit to inhaling marijuana than having sought assistance for your problems? More likely it's because you've never heard of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

In fact, EAP may be the least advertised perk in the world of workplace health. Essentially it's access to a free, fully-credentialed counsellor or professional to assist you with your life/work stresses. Your company pays for it (if they're a subscriber), but the service is 100% confidential and your employer will never know you've used it.

I can personally attest to its effectiveness. Years ago, my work began to suffer when a slew of outside crises hit at once: a dying parent, a deteriorating marriage, and career turmoil. Trying stuff, all. As I neared my breaking point I confided anxiously to a colleague. She gave me the number to our company's EAP hotline -- which I called immediately.

Within moments I was speaking to someone helpful. They listened patiently to my situation, then set me up with one of their licensed therapists. By the end of the six complimentary sessions I was starting to get matters in hand.

Nowadays EAP is about more than just emergency advice. Gerry Smith is Vice President, Organizational Health at Warren Shepell, one of Canada's leading EAP providers. He tells me that '10 years ago 95% of our work was face to face intervention for emotional and personal difficulties. Today, more than 25% is worklife services, including access to a nutritionist, lawyer, financial advisor, nurse line, elder and child care, adoption etc.'

With all that EAP has to offer, you'd think that everyone would know about it and use it. Not so.

Even though thousands of companies offer the service as a benefit to their employees, utilization rates across the country languish in the range of just 4 to 8%.

Why should that be? A couple of reasons dominate. For instance, 'The stigma of counselling is still a deterrent to many people,' says Tony Colangelo, Vice President & Business Leader, Employee Assistance Programs & WorkLife Solution Services at FGI, another major Canadian EAP. While this is less so for the under 40 crowd, many boomers still associate reaching out for help with admitting weakness.

Colangelo encourages people to look at EAP proactively. 'It definitely doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. On the contrary, when you have issues, you can seek EAP as your own personal consultant to get alternate views.'

FGI has also expanded from traditional counselling. Adds Colangelo, 'We've broadened our programs to address concerns before they become severe problems. It's part of the trend to go preventative, like our depression care system that shows people their susceptibility and helps them take steps to ward off further stress.'

Another barrier to Employee Assistance usage is the lack of awareness that the programs are even available. 'That's because companies encourage EAP's to keep the base utilization rate down by restricting how they market themselves to end-users,' says Smith. It's a cost saving measure that, in my mind, is like shooting yourself in the foot. Better to have healthy employees and make up the expense of EAP in productivity gains and reduced absenteeism.

So if you want to find out if your company subscribes, what do you do? Check your employee manual or the company's intranet site where it describes the benefits available to staff.

Otherwise, you may never know about it. Once you do though, making use of EAP is easier than ever. 'You don't even have to leave your home anymore,' says Colangelo. 'You can access us via e-counselling too. This includes telephone, or secure e-mail and self-help info on our web site.'

Mind you, there's one other crucial barrier to accessing EAP: the fear of getting outed. I remember being terrified that my boss would learn I was a user. The shame of appearing frail in a corporate setting was all too real.

Smith, author of Work Rage (Harper Collins Canada), wants to put any fears you may have of getting exposed to rest. 'Confidentiality is the cornerstone of our business. Without it, no one would use us.'

With that in mind, he offers the following assurances:

-when you come for an appointment, no one else from your organization will be there.

-we can't even confirm to the employer if you've contacted us.

-filing is completely private: only essential, authorized people have access to systems.

-we never release details of names or addresses to your anyone, unless absolutely required by law (for instance, if you're suicidal or imminently harmful to yourself or others).

-we never give out files to anyone but the client, and only then with a written request and I.D.

Want to play it even safer? Unlike me, don't call your EAP from the office, or scour their website using your employer's computer. That way no one can track what you're doing.

Ultimately you may find, as I did, that a few conversations with a caring professional can give you a new perspective. If not, your EAP can refer you to local resources if an extended intervention is necessary.

It would be great if, eventually, everyone who needed a helping hand could make use of an EAP. If you happen to be a manager or supervisor, please take note of Smith's advice: 'Each employee in a position of responsibility should trumpet this useful resource, becoming an ambassador for a service that truly makes a difference.' And as Colangelo states simply, 'being able to reach out for help is the most important thing.'

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