Workers distracted by marital, couple issues

Online resources among range of EAP options available to suit employee needs
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/14/2012

Personal relationship issues are not only causing problems at home, they’re also distracting employees at work, according to a survey from ComPsych.

More than one in five (22 per cent) employees say personal relationship issues are their biggest distraction at work, found the survey of 1,236 Americans.

“When employers look at what things increase presenteeism or make it difficult for people to really be focused and high-achieving at work, marital issues and couple issues are huge,” says Judith Plotkin, vice-president of strategic growth at Homewood Human Solutions in Toronto.

To reduce this distraction, employees are reaching out to employee assistance programs (EAPs) for support with personal relationship issues. It is either the number one or number two driver of EAP use at every organization, says Plotkin.

The most common issues that come up are around conflict management, separation, divorce, communication and verbal or psychological violence, she says.

“It seems to be one of the areas of choice for couples and working folks in terms of using the EAP,” says Plotkin. “The premise of an EAP (is) the early intervention for those problems we all face. It’s incredibly common to have difficulties in all kinds of elements of a personal relationship… and they want to have something where they can get in there more quickly and not wait until things (get worse).”

EAPs offer traditional couples counselling where the couple meets with a counsellor in-person who then helps them identify issues in their relationship and provides them with tools — such as active listening skills — to help improve upon them, says Lois Booth, director of business development at KW Counselling Services in Kitchener, Ont.

Some employees also participate in individual counselling sessions before their spouse is ready to join them, or they conduct telephone or ecounselling sessions with a counsellor as well, says Plotkin.

And online resources for personal relationship support are also an option.

In February, Morneau Shepell launched Enhancing Your Relationship, an online program. It offers a variety of resources including articles, videos, exercises and interactive activities to help clients have more satisfying relationships, says Barb Veder, clinical director at Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Online resources are enabling EAPs to find the best way to support employees any way, at any time, she says.

“Not everybody needs help in the same way or wants to receive it in the same way,” she says.

“Relationships seem to be a good fit to accessing or supporting people (who) would not necessarily need to see a counsellor, want to see a counsellor, but want to have strategies and information about how they could build a healthier and better relationship.”

And online resources also make EAP services more appealing to the younger generation of employees.

“They’re accustomed to getting help and learning in a more interactive way… The more innovative we are to provide support, the more employees are able to see (EAPs) as a viable, accessible option,” says Veder. “And we’re going to capture a group of people that have not traditionally used our service. Really matching how people are learning, sharing information today and tomorrow is key.”

There are many benefits to employers that offer support around personal relationships for employees, says Booth.

Employees who sought help from their EAP — which was most often around personal relationship issues — experienced:

• an 85 per cent increase in attendance

• a 52 per cent increase in their ability to concentrate at work

• a 47 per cent increase in job satisfaction

• a 43 per cent decrease in work-related stress

• a 39 per cent increase in the amount of work they accomplished.

That’s all according to the Family Services Employee Assistance Programs’ (FSEAP’s) Workplace Experience Outcome Survey of 3,000 Canadian employees from 2006 to 2011.

“We’re often considered sort of a warm, fuzzy, soft service… but employers can be confident that they’re getting value for their money,” says Booth.

“As counsellors, we see it day-to-day — somebody comes in, they’re stressed about child care, their relationship with their partner, they walk out with a plan, and tomorrow morning they feel good enough to go to work — but employers need to see more evidence.”

By offering this type of support to employees, employers will also benefit from increased engagement levels because workers feel their employers are looking out for their best interests and support their work-life balance, says Veder.

“The more we can take care of our personal issues and get support, the less they bleed into work time,” she says.

“You want your employees working at an optimum level, you want everybody to be engaged and, at times, that becomes a challenge because we’re people with lives outside work… and everyday they’re weaving together and we’re trying to keep our balance.”

It’s also in an employer’s best interest to offer support around personal relationship issues because, if left unresolved, the negative implications usually extend beyond an individual employee’s performance, says Plotkin.

“If an employer wants to think about any time someone in their workplace has gone through a separation, a custody issue, a full divorce and how that can really affect the whole team, the bottom line, it’s such a huge life change and can be so distracting for employees,” she says, adding EAPs also help a distressed employee determine how to discuss the issue with co-workers.

It’s important for employers to help employees manage their stressors — such as marital problems — before they get out of hand and lead to more serious physical and mental health issues, says Plotkin.

Employers should make sure they have proper employee communications in place around what services EAPs offer, including support for personal relationships.

The more visible the EAP provider is through communications such as brochures, posters, newsletters, a company intranet, internal social media sites, wellness fairs or targeted emails, the more likely employees will be to seek help, says Booth.

Employers should also provide managers with training on how to spot an employee who may be having difficulties with a personal relationship, which is usually a service provided by an EAP, says Plotkin.

“A distressed employee is presenting at work differently. Someone who is usually on time, ready to go, very put together and starts to demonstrate behaviour change that is not positive — they’re a bit more emotional at work, they’re not on time, they’re more distracted, disorganized — all those things would be red flags for any kind of distress and it could be marital,” she says.

If a manager notices these types of changes in an employee, he can bring it up during discussions around an employee’s performance and behaviour, says Plotkin.

“They have to go down by some of the observable behaviour changes and performance issues, but it can open the door if that employee shares with them what has been distracting them. Then it’s great for the manager to say, ‘What about some professional help? We have an EAP.’”

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