Employee Assistance Programs: A bridge to mental wellness at work

Sam Anderson, left, and Chuck Porch go over a patient’s file in Anderson’s EAP Services office in the Washington Hospital Auxiliary building in Washington.

A worker wouldn’t think twice about calling off for a cold, but most will still show up suffering through symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.

Two of the top five reasons people miss work or have a drop in productivity are depression and anxiety, which are Nos. 1 and 5, respectively, according to studies from Harvard Medical School.

“‘Well, I’ll see if the dentist catches it’ is the approach most have to mental health. It’s really at odds with how we approach our physical wellness,” said Washington Health System Employee Assistance Director Sam Anderson. “So for broken bones, we want the best, we want Dr. Freddie Fu from the Steelers. But for mental health, it seems we want the quickest, least-involved solution, and we surely don’t want a second opinion.”

Anderson manages the mental health counseling and coaching service EAP, a program offered to employers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The Observer-Reporter is one of about 50 companies that use the program as a screening and deterrent tool to find and prevent more serious mental health issues.

“We’re comfortable expressing grief in society, but not much else. So a lot of stealth symptoms go on for people suffering through issues, and then it sometimes only becomes noticeable at work when someone has an outburst or breakdown,” Anderson said.

EAP costs about $2 per employee each month for employers, according to Anderson. “It’s eventually an increase in productivity, a return to normalcy. But that’s the paradox: If you’ve been depressed for many years and that’s all you know, how do you know you shouldn’t feel that way?”

Trenna Passalacqua, vice president of human resources at Community Action Southwest, said it’s up to supervisors and coworkers to normalize conversations about changes in personality or sussing out changes in work productivity that may be linked to mental wellness.

“Nine out of 10 times in my experience, an employee will reveal in confidence a change because of depression or anxiety, and our referral has helped them open their eyes to the problem, and we’re able to salvage the employer-employee relationship,” Passalacqua said.

Managers in social work don’t often come equipped to handle the diverse needs of the field, Passalacqua said, like time management, sensitivity to the struggles of those they are helping or their own mental health uncertainties.

“Similarly, supervisor and leadership styles can clash. EAP can help iron out those transition issues, or help workers realize their respective roles that they’ve been overstepping,” Passalacqua said.

Cait Davin was a nonprofit office manager in Greene County before moving out of the area last month. She used the six-session counseling service after she was advised about the program by her mother, who works for Washington Health System.

“I took advantage because family can use the service. I was having breakdowns, and I wasn’t handling all these things I was telling myself I should be able to handle,” she said.

Davin and her counselor, Chuck Porch, worked through cognitive behavioral therapy that helped her analyze and recognize her thoughts and emotions before they became problematic or stressful behavior, which can become a cycle. Medication became part of her regimen to manage her anxiety and depression.

For Davin, it was her mom’s referral. For others, it’s a referral by a supervisor. However a person gets in touch with a life-counseling coach, Anderson said it needs to happen more often.

“We hope that most employees would come to us on their own. The history of EAP programs started with unions, so it’s started and we continue in light of that – for employees to be their best. But sometimes we find out through our sessions that the person realizes the job isn’t feeding their heart and soul anymore, and it’s time to move on. “Regardless, the best way to approach this is not to make a big deal about it. We’re not the principal’s office. This is a conversation, and having someone just listen to you in a confidential environment can be incredibly beneficial on its own,” Anderson said.

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