More staff turning to EAPs for credit, debt help: Report

Employer’s role to educate, inform but not counsel
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/11/2011

About two-thirds (63.2 per cent) of the times workers accessed their employee assistance program (EAP) for financial assistance last year, it was for personal debt or credit issues, found a report by MorneauShepell.

“The accesses for debt and credit are overshadowing what we looked at people accessing in previous years concerning investment, pension, retirement and those types of things,” said Karen Seward, executive vice-president of business development and marketing at the HR consulting firm in Toronto.

“In 2010, EAP access for debt and credit counselling definitely went up.”

When employees call their EAP about debt and credit issues, they often seek counselling support where they can sit down with a counsellor and discuss their concerns, said Mark Arnold, director of Family Services Employee Assistance Program (fseap) in Ottawa.

“There may be coping issues, fears about children’s future… there’s a lot of people that really need to speak to and meet with somebody, not just a website referral, because counselling at its best allows people to create a relationship where they can feel safe and comfortable,” he said.

When people are worried about their finances, it leads to stress and anxiety and an EAP can help employees navigate that, said Debra Wolinsky, senior director of clinical operations at EAP provider PPC Canada in Burnaby, B.C.

“Stress and strain affects people in a variety of ways — behaviourally, emotionally, attitudinally, physically — and that can have a toll on people if they believe they have few resources to deal with those stressors,” said Wolinsky.

The EAP should have credit counselling services available for people who are seeking practical expertise on managing debt, handling credit issues or answering questions around bankruptcy, said Arnold.

After debt and credit issues, divorce finances (8.7 per cent), bankruptcy (7.4 per cent), retirement (5.7 per cent) and taxes (4.6 per cent) made up all financial-related EAP access last year, found MorneauShepell’s report Impact of the Financial Crisis on EAP Usage from 2009-2010.

All financial EAP accesses have decreased since 2009, except for debt and credit issues which increased by 13 per cent.

“Read the paper, turn on the TV, listen to the radio — the economy is tough for people,” said Wolinsky.

“Canadians have a huge amount of debt,” she said. “For some folks, there is concern about stability and longevity at work and if they have high debt and no regular income, then what?”

To further assist employees in managing their credit and debt issues, employers should be promoting awareness and the prevention of the stress and anxiety triggers around managing finances, said Seward.

“We’re coming into the holiday season so, regardless of your religion, this is a time period where there’s more social engagements, more going on and people start to overextend themselves (financially), so how do we start to educate people now about thinking about that logically?” she said.

One way is by providing basic money management seminars where workers can get sound general advice, said Arnold. Another option is distributing periodic newsletters — especially around the New Year and back-to-school season — with money-managing tips, he said.

“Make sure employees and family members are given information about how they can cope well with stress — it’s not just about money management,” said Arnold.

“One person may not respond to a bounced cheque in a negative way at all, whereas it might put someone else over the edge, so help people learn how to cope with stress.”

However, employers should be mindful of their role of educating employees, not handling individual issues, when trying to provide support around credit and debt issues, said Seward.

“(Employers should) provide the right information — accurate information — and be cognizant that the role is to inform and educate, not counsel, not provide advice but more help (employees) navigate the resources that are available,” she said.

If employees are not properly dealing with their financial problems, it can have many negative implications in the workplace, said Seward.

“(Issues will manifest by) being away from work to deal with problems, being distracted while at work or acting out, so conflict in the workplace, crying, just not being present,” she said.

And thanks to the spillover effect — where personal issues can creep into the workplace — absenteeism, productivity and presenteeism can also be affected if an employee is stressed, said Wolinsky.

“If the individual is not sleeping well because they’ve been ruminating about all the bills that need to be paid, then that person may not be as fully fresh the next morning at work and they may be shorter with people or quieter or something of that nature that may impact the interpersonal relationships at work,” she said.

Since an employer’s absolute best resource is its employees, it’s in the best interest of organizations to make sure they offer valuable resources to help employees properly manage their debt and credit issues, said Arnold.

“When an organization is struggling, it needs its people to be as healthy and vibrant as possible and if you don’t offer these types of good programs and assume it’s each person for themselves, you may end up with an organization where people are really struggling individually and it will come out one way or another.”

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