It seems as if you can hardly take a deep breath these days without reading about corporate work-life balance initiatives or their similar sibling, the employee assistance program (EAP).
Organizations are increasingly concerned with the entire employee life cycle, and work-life balance is a part of that. As a result, more companies are adopting related programs, and the need for work/life or EAP training has grown accordingly.
“Employee assistance programs have evolved a lot over the years,” said Steve Salee, Corporate Counseling Associates vice president of consultative services. “It started out in the 1970s as a program that companies would send their executives to when they had substance abuse problems, and they wanted them to fix the problem and come back to work. Mental health professionals, social workers and psychologists, mostly with substance abuse backgrounds, performed this service. Over the years, the definition of EAP has expanded significantly to go far beyond substance abuse to cover all manner of mental health issues.”
Modern EAP programs either have in-house staff professionals or are contracted to outside vendors. In many cases, an employee can call a toll-free number and get help with many issues such as depression, anxiety or relationship problems, whether they originate at work or off the job, Salee said. These programs also may serve family members.
“Its counseling services, referrals or support, financial and legal help if people are in trouble and work-life services such as dependent care,” Salee explained. “If you have a child who needs a day-care program or a summer camp, or you need help helping them get into college and dealing with that whole process, if you have an elderly relative who needs help — adult day care, a nursing home — it’s pet care, education resources, EAP services do that. It’s pretty broad.”
EAP training helps employees learn skills such as how to communicate better with their colleagues, how to manage up effectively and how to have greater respect in the workplace so there are fewer things negatively influencing effectiveness.
“I just delivered training to one of the big museums in New York for their managers on solving performance problems to help them navigate through some thorny issues,” Salee said. “Dealing with difficult people is another topic, as is navigating through change, performance management, helping managers give better feedback to their direct reports and helping them to not just have a performance appraisal where you have a form thrown at you once a year with some numbers on it, but actually communicate with people throughout the year about how they’re doing in a positive, not just a negative, way.”
Salee said the coaching element of EAP training also is on the rise. Coaching (typically a one-on-one event working with a senior person such as a vice president) can help employees who are doing well overall to improve certain skill sets that might need attention.
“I’m coaching one person right now, for example, who is phenomenal with clients but needs to be a better manager inside the organization,” Salee said. “We think this kind of coaching engagement and training is on the rise because there are increasingly large numbers of executives who are in their organizations for shorter periods of time. We don’t have the same kind of lifelong employment that we used to have in this country — there’s less overall institutional knowledge that stays with an organization over time because people aren’t around and because we’re all asked to do more with less in our professional lives.”
Further, Salee said there are fewer in-house opportunities to train managers on how to be good ones. People participating in EAP training might have recently been promoted to a new level in their organization and might be great at familiar or operational subject matter, but they never have learned how to be a great manager or leader.
“They don’t know how to communicate a vision effectively,” Salee said. “They don’t know how to juggle a bunch of different staff issues and prioritize those. They may not know how to take care of themselves well while they’re taking care of their team, and the list goes on.”
Salee said another reason EAP training is on the rise is because corporate budgets are opening up, and companies are willing to spend more money on their people to compete in the war for talent.
“They want to retain their people and make them stronger resources, and companies are willing to invest in that,” Salee explained. “If the work is built off of strong relationships, organizations recognize the value of training that’s highly interactive, gets the participants to try on new skills in the room, teaches them how to communicate in different ways, how to use specific tools to manage performance in different ways. Organizations recognize that they have to retain the people they have. They need to expand their strong talent pools.”
Salee said EAP training attendees are typically midlevel employees, and attendees for team-building sessions tend to be very high-level people.
Coaching participants, which is a separate EAP track, are typically very senior-level people in whom organizations are willing to make more of an investment. EAP training classes might be instructor- or participant-led, and a blended approach that includes online work is not unusual.
“It’s important for a senior-level learning and development executive to keep in mind the emotional component that’s associated with people,” Salee said. “Don’t turn coaching or training into therapy but keep in mind the kind of resistance and emotional blocks that people may have that may make it difficult for them to learn. In the classroom, listen for different dynamics that might be completely off the leader’s guide but are relevant because they’re presenting in the room.
“Similarly, in coaching, we always have a third ear listening in the coaching engagement to assess what’s going on with this person emotionally that might derail their ability to be successful. Our personal makeup, emotional strength or emotional state will help or hinder our ability to be successful in our own talent growth.”