Getting managers the kind of help they need

Employee assistance not always on leaders’ radar
By Marie-Thérèse Dugré
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/27/2012

Employees are expected to perform at their best all the time, even when factors that negatively impact their ability to do so are coming from all directions — personal finances and retirement plans are under siege, family responsibilities are closing in and relationships with partners, co-workers and managers are challenged.

They hear words such as downsizing, productivity, presenteeism, profit and loss and they’re concerned.

Now, imagine this employee happens to be a manager, carrying the weight of being both an individual contributor and leader at the organization.

Managers are the “sandwich” group — they are pressed from both sides, by their direct reports who expect their own needs will be met and their fears will be assuaged, and by senior leaders who want their strategies executed and objectives met.

There is a plethora of tools available to HR professionals to help support managers. Most often, organizations turn to training and learning opportunities that focus on prioritization, performance management, having challenging conversations or managing up. They also look to individual and group coaching, and various personality and skills assessment vehicles.

One of the most underused tools is an employee assistance program (EAP). Typically viewed as a tool to help employees who are stressed, depressed or facing dependency or family issues, it has also been used to support employees with anger or workplace relationship challenges.

What employers have been reluctant to accept, and EAPs have been slow to promote, is almost all programs offer a degree of management support.

Utilization and uptake of manager-specific components — including printed and electronic resources as well as live telephonic consultations — are among the most underutilized components of typical EAPs, with overall usage across most mainstream providers falling in the range of less than five per cent of total aggregate program usage.

Any EAP should be able to provide reporting that distinguishes both the usage of manager components from other program components and the total manager usage of the program from front-line employees.

EAP providers and HR practitioners need to view managers in two ways and, as such, their usage of EAPs in two ways — as an employee like any other on the payroll and as an important part of the organization’s hierarchy who has responsibility for all the human assets of the company.

As individuals, managers have all the same needs as other employees and face all the same life and work challenges. EAPs need to be just as accessible, confidential and safe for managers as for all other employees. It’s important to realize, however, managers may feel they have more to lose if their confidentiality is compromised through the use of the program for a personal issue.

There are a multitude of reasons that explain why managers don’t reach out internally for support including:

• fear of being judged as incompetent by managers, peers or HR professionals.

• concern their confidentiality will be compromised.

• lack of awareness a problem or issue exists.

• belief a good manager knows how to solve problems.

Effective communication of how the program is managed and how usage is reported can help alleviate a manager’s personal concerns about confidentiality. HR practitioners can support this by:

• showing how they receive aggregate usage data from the provider

• arranging for manager-specific orientation sessions that allow them to ask questions directly of the EAP provider’s representative

• supporting appropriate EAP usage in the organization

• making appropriate referrals to the EAP for individual counselling or resources when a manager presents signs of personal stress or distress.

While most EAPs have done a reasonable or even excellent job of creating services specifically to address managers’ needs to have access to information, guidance and support, they haven’t always been as successful at communicating the value of such services to HR practitioners and the organizations they serve. Many employers believe the extent of manager support services delivered by their EAP providers is limited to managed or mandated referrals of employees and response to critical incidents in the workplace.

In the modern application of employee assistance, there are tools specifically designed to help managers deal with challenging conversations, performance management issues, change leadership, behaviour issues, attendance challenges, workplace mental health and virtually every other issue related to the management of their team. There are services to support a manager’s own development and to help link his own performance and approach to the objectives of the organization.

Getting managers to reach out to those services becomes easier when they are understood and promoted by trusted HR professionals in their own organizations.

To facilitate acceptance and usage, HR should:

• avail itself of those services both for its own support and to “test-drive” them

• clarify the manager assistance services provided by the EAP are not designed to replace HR or to help with policy or legal questions

• invite the EAP provider to facilitate sessions with the management and supervisory team to help them understand the supportive services available

• make accessing the program easy and safe for managers

•take advantage of program promotional materials made available by the EAP provider.

While an EAP isn’t typically the go-to tool organizations seek out to support the health, productivity and success of managers, it can be a robust tool that should be more heavily relied upon. From an ease-of-access and a return on investment (ROI) perspective, supportive management components of EAP programs should factor prominently in managers’ tool kits.

HR practitioners can demonstrate significant value to their internal clients and leadership teams by embracing tools that generate enhanced return, loyalty and results without incurring additional costs.

Marie-Thérèse Dugré is the Montreal-based CEO of Solareh, a service provider that specializes in absenteeism prevention, health, return-to-work management and psychosocial counselling following an accident or loss. For more information, visit

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