EAP use soars as economy tanks: Study

Changes in financial security increase stress

The number of workers using employee assistance programs (EAP) to manage personal financial problems increased significantly in the last quarter of 2008, according to a new report from Shepell-fgi.

The company, which provides EAP services to more than 7,000 customers covering about eight million employees, compared service levels in 2008 to those the previous year. In its report Financial Distress Impacts Health and Productivity, Shepell-fgi outlined marked increases in the number of calls received for collections, creditor and bankruptcy concerns. The most drastic change was a 41-per-cent spike in service for financial counselling related to divorce.

“Whenever you go through a significant change and, particularly, a change in something as important as our financial security, there is a lot of additional stress and anxiety placed on the individuals,” said Rod Phillips, Toronto-based president and CEO of Shepell-fgi. “The value of their homes, the value of RRSPs, all those pressures together are causing employees to be worried about these things and need support around them.”

The prevailing economic concerns present even more of a reason to ensure none of the services designed to help employees cope are cut, said Phillips.

“It’s great that we provide money for people to get their teeth cleaned but, frankly, when they’re worried about going bankrupt, or trying for the first time in their lives to write a budget because now they have to live within different financial means, those are probably more specifically important for people today than some of the other benefits employers provide,” he said.

EAPs assist workers during job loss

While the services assist people dealing with economic stress at work, they have also proven to be a valuable tool for those transitioning to new jobs.

The EAP at McMaster University serves nearly 5,000 staff members. As research contracts conclude and employees are laid off, EAP services are useful for career planning, said Andrianna Timperio, manager of employee and health services at the Hamilton, Ont.-based school.

“It does help people getting back to work,” she said. “They can use that service to help them look at different career options or look at the change in their employment situation.”

Last year, when the university reviewed the effectiveness of its EAP, it identified a need for programs to focus on prevention. As a result, it changed providers.

“We wanted… a very strong focus on health and well-being instead of (being) reactive,” said Timperio. The new service used most by employees involves one-on-one time with a counsellor, she said. The service provides the option of meeting with a counsellor near their home, by phone or through an online messaging system.

While employees facing potential job losses can manage stress through EAPs, employers can benefit by promoting services that improve the morale of the remaining staff.

“If you used to have 50 people in a department and now have 40, chances are there is still the work to get done that there was before,” said Phillips. “Understanding that and putting a priority on trying to deal with some of these issues so people are focused at work and are at work is going to make it easier for them to get through all this as an organization.”

In addition to the EAP, employers should work proactively to keep employees motivated, suggests the study.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the workplace, said Phillips. It is important for the organization to focus on eliminating anxiety among employees because heightened emotions can be detrimental to the workplace, he added.

“Obviously part of that is making sure people are aware of programs that can support them individually but the manager’s main responsibility to give the information they can give to employees is more important now than it was before,” he said.

The Regional Municipality of York, located north of Toronto, has provided EAP services for its 2,000 full- and part-time staff for more than 20 years.

The organization has not yet received statistics for the end of 2008, so it is unclear whether workers are turning to the EAP for financial support in increasing numbers, said Nancy Paterson, manager of employee services at the municipality.

However, her staff are not immune to the economic stress being felt in the community, she said.

Tips for employers

Promoting health, productivity at work

Karen Seward, senior vice-president of business development and marketing at Shepell-fgi, offers the following tips to promote long-term health and productivity in the workplace:

• Focus on preventing serious financial stress by helping employees better understand and cope with the economic downturn.

• Actively promote the EAP’s financial counselling and consultation services.

• Engage employees by creating a quality work environment. This involves a high level of communication, employee participation in decision-making and management supervisory styles that support employees and are based on trust, respect and fairness.

• Understand the connection between health, productive employees and lower costs for disability and absenteeism.

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