Employee assistance programs (EAPs) were established in the late 1960s with the goal of maintaining productivity. EAPs provide employees with counseling and referral services for such problems as alcohol and substance abuse and other mental-health problems. As EAPs evolved they began to deal with a wider range of employee concerns, including health, marital, family, financial, legal, emotional, and stress-related problems. EAPs can also help employers with sexual harassment problems, drug testing, and violence in the workplace. A specific EAP may focus on one or more of these problem areas or be open to treat them all.

A wide range of businesses throughout the United States and abroad have EAPs. More than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have employee assistance programs, and a 1995 survey indicated that more than 82 percent of companies with 1,000 or more employees offered EAP services. They are also commonplace in many other English-speaking nations. An EAP may offer employees the services of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, rehabilitation counselors, psychiatric nurses, and support personnel, among others. In practice EAP counselors may have a variety of educational and professional backgrounds.

While all EAPs are workplace-based, there are several different models. Internal EAP counselors work for the business or organization they serve. They may have their own department or be part of the company's human resources or personnel department. In external EAPs, an external provider, such as a mental-health organization or hospital, contracts with a business or organization to provide counseling. According to the Employee Assistance Professional Association, Inc., the number of external EAP providers increased from around 10,000 in 1991 to more than 20,000 in 1998. In larger corporations an EAP may be set up with corporate EAP personnel providing managerial supervision and support for contracted EAP professionals.

An important element of an EAP is confidentiality. EAP counselors work under strict confidentiality whether or not they are employed by the same company or organization as the employees they are counseling. They may not reveal an employee's concerns or problems to the employee' s supervisor or manager, or anyone else outside of the EAP. Even the fact that an employee has contacted an EAP counselor usually remains confidential.

In organizations with an EAP, employees are encouraged to contact an EAP counselor whenever they have a problem they would like to discuss, especially if it is a problem that is affecting their ability to function on the job. With EAP training, supervisors may notice problems and suggest to employees that they contact an EAP counselor. For particularly troubled individuals, failure to follow their supervisors' suggestions could lead to termination.

In some programs EAP counselors meet face-to-face with troubled employees. In other programs they may provide telephone consultation only. All EAP services are generally paid for by the employer and are considered a benefit for the employee.

During the initial and early meetings, EAP counselors attempt to assess the employee's needs and problems. EAP counselors listen and talk to the employee until the nature of the problem can be assessed. Some programs may offer a maximum number of sessions, such as two or three, while others may not impose a limit on the number of counseling sessions. During these sessions EAP counselors may determine whether or not any of the employee's immediate family should also be included in further counseling.

Once the problem has been assessed, EAP counselors may provide a variety of services depending on their qualifications and the nature of the company's EAP. EAP counselors may provide short-term counseling and/or therapy. If it is apparent there is a crisis, EAP counselors may be required to intervene. In EAPs limited to telephone consultation, EAP counselors provide problem assessment over the telephone along with limited counseling and resource referral.

In cases requiring additional professional services, EAP counselors serve as a link to professional and community resources for employees. EAP counselors may refer employees to other managed-care services for appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and assistance. After employees have been referred for treatment, there may be additional sessions during which EAP counselors provide follow-up assessment and counseling to help the employees maintain their productivity and well-being on the job.

EAPs have been widely accepted by business and industry and their employees. Employers have recognized that EAPs benefit all concerned—employees, their families, and their employers. By responding to a wide range of employee problems, EAPs serve business and industry by providing for a more productive workforce.

SEE ALSO : Human Resource Management

[ David P. Bianco ]


Cohen, Gary R., and others. "Employee Assistance Programs: A Preventive, Cost-Effective Benefit." Journal of Health Care Finance, spring 1998, 45-53.

Employee Assistance Professionals Association. "The Benefits of an EA Program." Arlington, VA: Employee Assistance Professionals Association, 1998. Available from www.eap-association.com .

——. "Why Employers and Employees Need EAPs." Arlington, VA: Employee Assistance Professionals Association, 1998. Available from www.eap-association.com .

Reynes, Roberta. "Programs that Aid Troubled Workers." Nation's Business, June 1998, 73-74.

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