Tackling problem helps people -- and profits

Most people who become involved in employee assistance programs don't believe they have problems with alcohol or other drugs, says David Levine at Human Affairs International, which serves more than 1 million employees. Often they are having legal, financial, or family problems. Usually an employee assistance program is free to the employee, and confidential. About 5 to 10 percent of a company's employees come in for a chat on their own. But about a third of the time, the counselor detects ``red flags,'' Mr. Levine says: comments about broken relationships; recreational activities that end for no apparent reason; a string of job changes.

``When chemicals are a problem, they show up in all facets'' of a person's life, he says.

The person is then encouraged to end ``denial'' of the problem. Often family members are asked to join counseling sessions, and the employee is urged (with an implicit threat of job loss) to join groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or in some cases in-patient treatment.

The success rate varies by industry and company, ranging from 40 percent to 97 percent, according to the Association of Labor Management Administrators and Consultants on Alcoholism.

Companies say employee assistance programs (EAPs) save costs overall. General Motors, for example, says it saves $3,700 a year for every employee enrolled in its program.

Consequently, the business has mushroomed from 50 EAPs in 1950 to about 5,000 today. But of late, companies have been taking a close look at the secondary costs of these programs, which themselves are a relatively inexpensive $15 to $50 per person.

Lockie McGehee, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, says counselors often recommend that an employee get further treatment within a medical facility or on an outpatient basis. That increases health care and insurance costs.

Others wonder whether such programs really get at the root cause of drug abuse problems.

``They're usually designed at helping the troubled worker get out of trouble,'' says Don Tepas, an industrial psychology professor at the University of Connecticut. ``What companies need is an educational program to help the worker who's not yet in trouble.''

If companies would put more effort into making the workplace less tedious and more humane, he says, they would eliminate much of the alcohol and other drug abuse that plagues corporate America.

And though they have not yet emerged, there may be legal problems in the wings, says Barbara Lee, a law professor at Rutgers University.

``A company could be shown to have been on notice if it has sent an employee through an employee assistance program and then didn't remove him from the job.'' If an accident occurred because of that employee, ``that would be much clearer evidence of negligence'' on the company's part, she says.

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