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    Whether you are a human resource professional in a large department or a small one, its likely you’re occupied with similar priorities and tasks.  Of course, if you are a one person HR department for dozens or even a few hundred employees, you alone have to be a master at all these priorities and more. Priorities like talent acquisition and retention.  Like ensuring compliance with employment laws affecting hiring, discharges, overtime rules, wages and compensation, accommodations, inclusion and much more.

    Not the least important of your priorities are tasks concerning employee engagement, morale, wellbeing, health, and safety.  As you know, part of this area of your expansive role can be assisting employees with sensitive personal issues- ones that may entail a referral to your employer-sponsored assistance program for counseling services. Sometimes such employees come directly to you and you not always knowing what they need or what is available.  At other times, an employee situation is brought to your attention by that employee’s manager. Usually this is because of misconduct, a policy violation or declining job performance documented by the manager. Both the employee and your manager expect you to be an expert on your assistance programs and their counseling benefits.  Here are some points I want you to know about the subject of counseling.  These tips will help you and will help you to assist others.

    Counseling Basics

    First, let’s understand a little about the counseling your assistance counselors provide.  Counselors can be from the professions of Clinical Social Work, Professional Counseling, Psychology, or Marriage and Family Therapy.  When functioning as assistance counselors, they help people with a variety of issues- whether an employee is struggling with marital and family conflicts, any work or personal life stressor, or a mental health or substance misuse condition.  Counselors help clients:

    1. understand their situation or sometimes to be educated about their mental health or substance misuse condition if one is present,
    2. develop individualized goals and a plan of action to address their issue,
    3. resolve the concern or in some cases to manage an ongoing mental health or substance misuse condition, and
    4. by making helpful referrals to other resources that may also support the employee’s resilience and wellbeing.

    Speaking of referrals, though these counselors don’t provide medications, they are experts at recognizing the need for them.  They often refer clients to psychiatrists or other healthcare providers to be evaluated for psychiatric medications. But you probably already know that many in your workforce are taking some type of psychiatric medication based on the information you review from your pharmacy benefit manager. Your workforce is no different from any others in this way.  About 1 in 6 Americans take a psychiatric medication, most commonly for depression or anxiety. Many of these people are not seeing a counselor, though medication + counseling is the optimal treatment approach.

    Finally make sure that the counselors in your assistance program are physically and culturally accessible for your employees.  Do counselors answer your access line? Sometimes employees need to speak with a counselor about a personal issue but don’t need an actual course of counseling visits. Can your employees be served by tele mental health in addition to in-office appointments? Do you provide assistance counseling services on-site at your workplace? Many employers do. Are diverse counselors available with the cultural competencies needed to serve your employees?

    Motivation Counts

    The second thing to know about counseling is that people must be motivated to seek and benefit from a counselor’s services. While counselors use a technique called Motivational Interviewing to increase client’s desire for change, employees must be motivated to use the counselor’s services for their goals and reasons. Sometimes  the motivation comes out of a crisis-one you may need to let happen. Originally employee assistance programs were aimed at helping employees get treatment for alcohol or drug abuse that had resulted in some type of workplace crisis. The crisis and threat of possible job loss was a powerful motivator for the employee to engage in counseling. Our assistance programs save hundreds of jobs every year through assisting motivated employees who have been formally referred by human resource managers to address personal issues after they have begun to impact their workplace conduct or job performance.

    Confidentiality is the Cornerstone of Counseling

    Third, counselors are required by law and ethical standards to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive information. In fact, they can’t even acknowledge or deny that a particular person is a client, or release identifying information without informed and voluntary consent.  (Exceptions are rare- court ordered disclosures, reporting suspicions of child or elder abuse or neglect, or instances of imminent danger to oneself or others.)  Despite most adults having heard the term HIPAA and understanding it has something to do with the protection of their health information, many employees must be reassured about the privacy of their counseling.  After all it’s natural that employees may have suspicions about the privacy of no-cost counseling that their employer provides.  Of course, you know you only get aggregated, non-identifying information from your assistance program, but employees do not realize or believe that. Reassure employees about their privacy whenever mentioning counseling through your assistance program. Do it again and again. 

    Clients are Not Damaged Goods

    Fourth, assure employees that going to counseling doesn’t mean you are weak, damaged or have something to be ashamed of.  It also doesn’t mean that you are an “other”.  This is the area where you as a human resource professional must address the social stigma around counseling, often perpetuated by stereotypes in social media and the entertainment business. If you don’t take the lead at your workplace combatting this stigma, who will?  Your assistance program will be your partner. Remind employees that using counseling services is a healthy way to become a better, happier person. That is, it can make good employees, better employees.  My experience is that the overwhelming majority of people who use counseling services end up recommending them to others.

    Counselors Don’t Have All the Answers

    Fifth, counselors will not tell clients what to do nor will they have all the answers.  They may not be able to tell a client “ here is now you should solve this problem”. Nor can they explain why someone was the victim of abuse.  Or why genetics can predispose a person to be at greater risk for depression or for substance misuse and addiction. Or why negative thinking is holding them back from achieving their potential.  But they are trained to provide valuable, objective, and informed guidance and to help people reach their own goals.  While all the time encouraging and supporting clients to be happier and lead more satisfying lives.  Also, be mindful that counseling is not exclusively aimed at helping people to feel better immediately. Sometimes at first people even feel worse in sharing their deepest pains, struggles and failures.  Sometimes this has to occur before one can begin to heal or find solutions.

    You Don’t Have to be a Counselor

    “Some days, I feel like I’m a therapist. An unqualified one!” a Human Resource manager friend of mine recently said to me.  Do you feel that way sometimes too?   Though it may feel like employees expect you to be a counselor, you don’t have to be one. You don’t have to feel like you must have all the solutions to their problems. Maybe a more fitting role is that of a non-judgmental listener who knows their resources. Often employees want to be heard and understood. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge and validate their feelings, regardless if you agree with them.  Importantly become familiar with the counseling services your assistance program provides.  Make informed referrals to its counseling services for employees with sensitive person concerns.  You don’t have to be a counselor, just make your assistance program your resource and partner.

    About the Author

    Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr for over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.

    About Espyr

    For over 30 years Espyr has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.


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