Marriage problems, drug abuse, grief and other personal problems aren't left at home when a person punches in at work, say employers who offer a benefit called "employee assistance plans."
EAPs, as most companies call them, usually offer employees three to six visits witha counselor in response to a range of emotional or substance-abuse problems.
These plans, sometimes called personal-assistance counseling or an employee counseling program, usually are operated for an employer by an outside counseling agency, such as Sheppard Pratt Employee Assistance Programs or Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.
Using an outside agency protects the confidentiality of an employee who might not be willing to bring a personal problem to the schools' personnel department, said William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration at Carroll County Public Schools. The school system plans to purchase an EAP by this spring for its 2,000 employees.
"We're doing it for three reasons," Hyde said of the $30,000 purchase. "It's the right thing to do for our employees -- it's an importantbenefit to offer. Second, it can save you some money with (health insurance costs), and we desperately need to save money on health insurance. Third, our purpose is to teach kids: One of the things we thinkis important is to have healthy role models in front of our kids.
"We've addressed the physical well-being of our employees, but thereare emotional needs," Hyde said of the addition of EAPs to existing health-insurance benefits and a wellness program promoting physical fitness and preventive medicine.
Hyde said the counseling could save money by preventing minor emotional difficulties from growing into more serious physical or emotional problems that might require costlyinpatient care.
An assistance program also can guide an employee who needs long-term help to counseling that is affordable or covered by the company's health insurance.
EAP counselors can help an employee find financial or legal help, too, said Suzan Westervelt, development coordinator for Sheppard Pratt.
EAPs are not new, but they have grown steadily in popularity, said James Clements, director of the 9-year-old Employee Counseling Program at Family and Children's Services. The first such plans can be traced back to 40 years ago, he said. Since then, they have grown through promotion by labor unions, but administrators now seem to be taking the lead, Clements said.
Companies offer employee assistance programs to protect workers' health, he said.
"They know their employees are their most valuable resource," Clements said.
Clements and Westervelt said "a landmark study" done by McDonnell Douglas Corp. in the late 1980s showed an employee assistance program produced dramatic savings from reduced absenteeism and health-care claims, which helped control insurance premiums.
Over a four-year period, McDonnell Douglas employees who used a program for treatment of chemical dependency missed 44 percent fewer workdays and filed $7,300 less in health-care claims than those treated outside the EAP, according to a 1989 Wall Street Journal article onthe study.
The article also said 70 percent of the Fortune 500 companies offered EAPs.
"When we were starting out seven years ago, it was very, very rare to encounter (employers) who knew anything of an employee assistance program. It was a very difficult program to sell," Westervelt said.
Now, she said, Sheppard Pratt often gets unsolicited requests from companies for information on an EAP.
"We are not pounding the pavement any more," Westervelt said.
The cost of an EAP varies according to who operates it, how many employees there are, the kind of business and worker demographics.
Carroll County government pays about $20 per employee annually for its EAP, which offers up to three visits with a counselor. The plan is administered by Rae Rosvold Associates in Olney, using local counselors.
Westervelt said that for a company with 300 employees, a typical cost at Sheppard Pratt might be $25 to $28 per employee per year. That figure would include up to six visits per employee with a counselor, education for employees on how to use the plan and training supervisors how to recognize problems and refer employees to the plan and other services.
Clements said he could not give an average cost for an EAP, because his agency's plan costs vary depending on the demographic makeup of the work force.
He said, for example, that blue-collar males tend to use the program less. Young professionals tend to use an assistance program more often, because counseling bears less of a stigma for them, he said. Women tend to use the program more often because they still get saddled with most family problems, he said.
Random House, the largest private employer in the county, offers workers an EAP through Family and Children's Services.