Corporate giant's hot line helps employees solve personal problems

A hardworking executive with the ITT Corporation, John R. had it all: a good job, suburban home, wife and children. He seemed to exemplify the American success story. He also had a serious problem that threatened him, his family, and his job: alcohol addiction.

But this ITT employee's story did not end in personal ruin and tragedy. He got help by calling his own company. ITT's Employee Assistance Program hot line referred him to an alcohol rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania for treatment; he enrolled and recovered.

ITT started its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in 1973 and has confidentially helped more than 10,000 employees since then -- with problems ranging from alcohol and drug dependency to family, marital, and emotional distress.

While such programs are a growing trend among American businesses, ITT's effort is unique: Employees, family members, or retirees around the world can call the hot line 24 hours a day, seven day a week. There are 11 other local hot lines spread across the United States.

The program benefits not just the individual, but the corporation, says program director Jeanne Conway.

``There's considerable evidence that personal problems have a significant adverse impact upon employees and their ability to function on the job, which in turn impacts the organization for which they work.''

The cost to US industry for employees' drug dependency, alcoholism, and emotional problems is estimated at $137.6 billion annually, according to a study by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

The ITT hot line was begun in 1980 to expand employee assistance to weekends, holidays, and nonbusiness hours.

``Many employees problems are family related,'' Ms. Conway says, ``and these usually don't reach a crisis during the business day.''

Once the employee or family member seeks help, the problem is evaluated and he or she is sent to carefully screened outside counselors, self-help groups, volunteer agencies, specialists, or treatment centers best suited to their needs. Most treatment expenses are covered by the company medical plan.

``ITT is really as good as its word,'' says John R. ``There are no recriminations, only a real desire to help.''

``No one ever has to worry about the confidentiality of the program,'' Conway emphasizes. ``Nothing is ever put on an employee's personnel record. There is certainly no stigma attached to requesting help in order to do a better job. ITT stresses that the program is an important fringe benefit to be utilized by all employees any time they need help -- for whatever reason.''

To reinforce the confidentiality, some companies have decided to turn their entire EAPs over to outside firms, such as Counseling and Consulting Systems Inc. of Oakland, Calif.

In existence for six years, this firm has contracts with 42 companies nationwide to provide counseling for their employees.

Sharon Smith, vice-president of the employee consulting firm, believes the trend among most Fortune 500 companies has been toward developing some sort of assistance program, whether in-house or off-site.

``I think that companies feel more responsible to their employees but also recognize that personal problems cost the company big dollars, whether they be alcohol, drug, or marital,'' Ms. Smith says. ``People under stress lose their concentration. So it becomes cost-effective to help them.''

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