When the sensational news story broke about astronaut Lisa Nowak and her stranger-than-fiction 900-mile odyssey to confront – perhaps even kidnap or worse – a woman who she apparently thought was her rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot, my first reaction was astonishment to the point of disbelief. That was followed by amusement at the inevitable jokes from Leno, Letterman, and virtually every other comedian on television. My next reaction was sadness, and a bit of a guilty conscience, for having been amused by the bizarre story.
I started thinking of the number of times in my life, including my work life, when I acted irrationally or felt so stressed that I didn’t know what to do or where to go for help in coping with my problems. I was fortunate enough to discover my agency’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and to arrange for stress management counseling, which was very helpful. At first I was concerned about a certain “stigma” being attached to anyone who seeks counseling, but I concluded that there was nothing wrong with recognizing that you need help and trying to find it.
From everything I have read, and from talking to human resources (HR) and EAP staff, virtually every government agency has an EAP and they are ubiquitous in the private sector as well. However, I have found that many Federal employees, and even supervisors, are not aware of the EAP, or at least are unfamiliar with the scope of services provided by most EAPs. Consequently, I think that the EAP is underutilized in many agencies.
OPM.gov provides a good overview of EAPs in a “Question and Answer” section that is excerpted below:
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a service available to all employees at no cost. It is staffed by professional counselors who will help you address problems that can adversely affect job performance, reliability, and personal health. A counselor will discuss the problem with you and after helping you assess the problem, provide short-term counseling. If needed, the counselor will also refer you to other professional services and resources within your community for further information and assistance.
EAP counselors will work with you to help resolve a wide variety of problems including alcohol and drug abuse, work and family pressures, legal and financial problems, job stress, and other concerns which can affect your work performance and personal health.
In addition to counseling employees on an individual basis, EAPs often sponsor lunchtime seminars, send out employee newsletters, and provide information designed to help you and your co-workers establish a healthier and more rewarding lifestyle.
A telephone call is normally all it takes to make an appointment with an EAP counselor. EAP operating hours usually are flexible so the employees can make appointments before, during, and after the workday. For specific information on hours of operation and procedures for making appointments, you should check your agency’s bulletin board, telephone directory, or call your agency’s EAP office.
Yes, your privacy is protected by strict confidentiality laws and regulations and by professional ethical standards for counselors. The details of your discussions with the counselor may not be released to anyone without your written consent.
Periodic evaluations conducted by the Office of Personnel Management indicate that the vast majority of the thousands of employees who annually seek assistance from their EAPs are helped in overcoming their problems.
How much will the EAP cost me?
There is no cost to employees who receive counseling and other services provided by the agency’s EAP. Costs for outside treatment and professional services, which can result in personal expense, may be covered by your Federal Employee Health Benefits plan or private insurance. The EAP counselor will work with you to identify the best available outside treatment program and services in line with your individual finances.
Don’t wait too long! The sooner you seek help, the sooner your problems can be resolved. Problems left unresolved can often lead to more serious situations with a greater risk that your health or job performance will be jeopardized. If you take advantage of the help and support offered through your EAP and address your problems before they become serious, you and your organization will both be winners.
OPM’s guidance is a good place to start for employees and supervisors who are not familiar with the EAP or want to learn more about it. Agency-specific information about your agency’s EAP can be obtained from your HR office and/or from EAP officials themselves.
Supervisors often wonder, for good reason, what their role and responsibilities are with regard to employee personal problems that may be affecting their performance and/or conduct, and how they are supposed to interface with the EAP.
In the next article, I will address that issue as well as some of the myriad ways that a supervisor can use the EAP to help resolve a variety of employee performance and conduct issues and to provide training and information on many work-life issues, including those pertaining to physical and emotional health.