Substance Abuse Employee Assistance Programs

When an employee with substance abuse issues seeks treatment, there are a couple things that their employer can do to help them out. At minimum, an employer can be supportive of the person as they get help. Many will provide the flexibility the person needs in their schedule to receive treatment. Others will be more lenient with mistakes and absences. One of the best ways that employers can help out their employees with substance abuse issues is by providing access to Employee Assistance Programs or EAPS. In sponsoring an EAP, employers are providing resources that can be used by all of their employees.

This article will discuss EAPs and what employers need to know about them. Topics will include the advantages and disadvantages of such a program in the workplace, as well as what requirements are necessary. The different types of EAPs and what they entail will also be discussed. Information on how to start an EAP in your workplace will be provided at the end of the article.

What Are Employee Assistance Programs?

Basically, EAPs are resource programs that assist employees as they go through certain issues, including substance abuse. The programs provide employees with access to services similar to what would be found in a treatment center. This can include therapy and support groups. During their setup, many EAPs will collaborate with local treatment providers for those services. Other issues that an EAP can focus on include financial problems, family issues like marital problems, continuing education, and legal trouble to name a few.

The main purpose of EAPs is to help an employee readjust to their work without drugs and keep them drug free. A workplace may not be the most conducive environment for battling addiction. There could be stressors that can trigger cravings, hostility from co-workers, and temptation of other abusive substances. An EAP can help improve those working conditions and help generate a more therapeutic environment for the person. Doing so reduces the chances of a relapse, which can pose additional problems for both the person and their employer.

EAPs are usually set up and paid for by employers. It is often treated like any other facet of the company, which means it needs to be regularly assessed, included in budgeting, comply with existing policies, and be staffed by qualified personnel. Their usage often involves certain requirements that employees must meet, which can prevent abuses of the program. These aspects can vary based on the type of EAP, discussed below, an employer sets up. Some employers who are looking at including EAP services may want to look into what is offered by the company's health insurance carrier. Many insurance companies cover substance abuse and may be able to help in providing EAP resources and information. Checking out what is offered by the company's insurance provider is also a good idea in the first place, as they what can or cannot be included in a health-based EAP under their policy.

EAP Types

The different types of EAPs are characterized by their access and setup. What services are offered by an EAP can be affected by the program's type and overall size within the company. There are about six standard formats to choose from, although they can be modified to fit the needs of the company and its employees:

  • External--Most external EAPs are nation-wide networks and function as a third party organization that partners with a company. In order for an employee with an employer who offers an external EAP for substance abuse to gain access to the program, they often need to call a toll-free number and speak on the phone with a specialist. It is the specialist who determines if the employee qualifies for the program and then refers them to the appropriate resources.

  • Internal--Also known as in-house EAPs, internal programs operate at the company. Depending on the program's size, some of their services may also be on company property. Internal EAPs are more common with large multi-location corporations than average business. One noticeable facet of internal EAPs is that many of their staff members are employees under the company providing the program. This isn't the norm for all internal EAPs, but it is fairly common.

  • Mixed or Blended--Usually a cross between an internal and external EAP. Many blended EAPs pull the best qualities from both formats: the convenience of an in-house program with the accommodation of an external network. Businesses that have multiple locations and employees separated by departments or specialty may gain more benefit from a blended EAP. While it can be a little more costly, the flexibility it provides can be well worth the costs.

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  • Member Assistance Programs--Member assistance programs or MAPs are not provided or controlled by employers, but by unions. They address specified aspects of the EAP's focused issue--in this case, substance abuse--that are relevant to the industry the union operates in. A MAP functions the same way as any other EAP, except you have to be a member of the union controlling it in order to use its services.

  • Management-Sponsored Programs--An EAP that has its control and operation under the care of management rather than the company as a whole. The responsibility of the program lies solely with members of management. In some cases, a management-sponsored EAP will connect with or piggyback on other employee programs offered by the company.

  • Peer-Based--Rather a rare and unique option, peer-based EAPs involve services that are provided from other employees. Their implementation is rather tricky; everyone who is offering services in the program needs to have the proper credentials in order for it to be successful. The training involved in setting up a peer-based EAP is extensive and can suck up many of a company's resources.

The Advantages

By design, substance abuse EAPs have many benefits for a company. Their services are rarely limited to just people with substance abuse issues and can extend to co-workers, the administration, and the family of the employee. Any advantages available to recovering addicts are applicable for everyone else; the extent to which any benefits become widespread in the company is dependent on the execution of the program. Here are just a few that employers can expect from an effective EAP:

  • Job Skills--Over time, substance abuse can diminish a person's professional abilities, no matter their proficiency before developing an addiction. When an employee seeks treatment and enters recovery, they may find that they're a little rusty and not as great with certain tasks. Behavioral therapy during treatment is often used to allow recovering users relearn social skills, and can be applied to professional skills via an EAP. A company's program could offer options for skills education and refreshment based on the industry it operates in.

  • Attendance--Absenteeism and tardiness is one of the hallmarks of substance abuse in the workplace. While a person goes through treatment and recovery, their attendance may still be an issue as they adjust. In general, most EAPs will work to help reduce attendance issues of multiple causes. The program's tactics could potentially reinforce the importance of attendance as it pertains to the company in a manner that is more personalized to the situation.

  • Accessibility--The success of substance abuse treatment is often dependent on how accessible tools and resources are in an emergency. Relapse-triggering cravings can hit at any time and many recovering addicts need to be able to use whatever they can to combat them. If such an instance occurs at work, an employee may have to abandon their tasks to travel to those resources or try to wait it out if they are unable to leave work. Even the shortest amount of time spent between a craving and a combative resource can make a massive difference in a person's continued sobriety. EAPs, especially internal ones, bring those resources right to those affected employees and cuts out some of the delay. Instead of getting permission to leave and going across town (or further) when you're struggling, you can simply head over to a different part of the building and find the same things.

  • Engagement--The interactions an employee has while addicted can often be limited, impacting their working relationship with their peers. This, by extension, can affect communication, moral, and safety of those employees. The help and interactions an employee gets through the EAP act as practice for their communication skills. The better they get, the more engaged they would be in their job. An EAP's presence also tends to open up the lines of communication between the upper levels of management and the employees, who may not regularly interact in the first place.

Disadvantages and Limitations

Nothing is perfect, and all good things do tend to come with a drawback or two. EAPs and other such programs are no exception. Some of the disadvantages and limitations of EAPs are built into their design and are sadly unavoidable. Others are contingent on the program's execution and management, which may put the company at fault. When considering using or implementing an EAP, it is best to keep in mind some of the following:

  • Counseling Is A Double-Edged Sword--Most of the counseling options through an EAP are going to be either voluntary or mandated. While both do have some benefits--voluntary counseling is often temporary and puts the employee in control, mandated ensures that help is being administered--there are some significant cons. With voluntary counseling, it can be difficult to get employees who need the help to even consider going to a session. Its temporary status also might not work for employees who need long-term counseling and can't afford it on their own. Mandated counseling is often faced with some degree of resistance, especially if employees are dissatisfied with the requirements that send them into sessions. There is also the potential that EAP-offered counseling may not be enough to handle aspects of an employee's substance abuse issues.

  • Privacy Issues--many people with addiction are embarrassed by their issues and may want to keep things separate from work as they seek treatment. Openly walking into the offices for your company's in-house substance abuse EAP doesn't really allow for things to stay private. Employees who have substance abuse issues that are not known by their employer may avoid seeking treatment through the (usually free to them) program due to the attention it can draw within the company. There is also a significant risk concern a lack of confidentiality for EAPs. While there are codes of conduct that are designed to keep the content of interactions with staff members private, that does not mean that EAP staffers don't share amongst themselves. Many EAP staff will be on rather good terms with company officials and may engage in small talk about the program--including its employee usage. Even if identifying details are not brought up during the conversation, it still is a violation of confidentiality.

  • Reluctance--Employees may be hesitant to use EAP services if they are unaware of what it is and what it does. The success of these programs are dependent on employees using them, so it can be easy way for them to fail if no one ever shows up. There is also the possibility that employees may be afraid of stigma and potential punishments if they use an EAP. They might not even know that the program exists!

How To Start an EAP

The first thing that an employer who is considering implementing an EAP must do is determine what needs need to be met. Aspects such as the company's size and finances will shape what can be done to meet those needs with a program. Implementing an EAP is great, but it can do anyone any good if it collapses in on itself because of poor planning. Figure out what limitations the company has and create the program around them.

From there, a company needs to choose their program type. If an in-house option isn't viable (re: financial costs), then go with an external one. Look at what network providers are available; shop around to find the best fit and stay within your limitations. Be sure to check with the company's health insurance provider before making any final decisions about a network, especially since they may have their own available through their coverage. If the company is in an industry with a union presence and many employees are members, get in touch with union officials to see if they already offer any EAPs. Repetition of resources can lead to more waste than benefit, and may lead to confusion amongst the employees you're trying to help. If there already is an applicable EAP available to your employees through their union, then shift your efforts into making its presence known in the company.

Once all the details about the EAP have been decided on, it can be acted upon. Set up any dedicated areas within the company so they can be put to use. Alert employees that there is now an EAP for them; provide information about the program and how they can access its resources. Actually get it started and guide it from there.