Category Archives: employee assistance programs

Communicating with Coaches

Norma Nielsen dove right into a serious topic to launch Day Two of the International Coach Federation’s ICF Converge 2017 meeting (held Aug. 23 – 26 at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.)

Nielsen, the learning and development manager at the Argus Group, has worked as an attorney, and she’s worked in HR. She’s also a certified professional coach, of course, and her presentation this morning focused on some of the ethical dilemmas she’s encountered in working with employees, their managers and the HR leaders at their organizations.

Some of the common quandaries that she and other internal coaches find themselves in, she said, revolve around maintaining boundaries and confidentiality, for example. When asked to share some of the ethical challenges they’ve faced, the coaches in the crowd spoke to their experience with such issues.

One coach, for instance, recalled a client company whose HR leader approached him in search of details on the coaching sessions he had conducted with various high performers in the organization. The exchange with HR, he said, left him uncomfortable, as he was bound to maintain confidentiality between himself and the individual employees he coaches.

“Keeping boundaries and confidentiality with [coaching clients] when HR comes in looking for ‘intel,’ ” said Nielsen, “can get tricky.”

While Nielsen’s presentation was aimed at professional coaches, some of the scenarios she outlined raised interesting questions for HR.

For example, coaches sometimes “feel pressure” from either line managers or HR leaders to provide information on an employee’s progress in an internal coaching program, which she says creates potential confidentiality issues.

Does HR have a claim to that type of information? What sort of information should coaches share with HR?

Nielsen also recalled a peer in the coaching profession whose coaching client admitted to being subjected to bullying and other unacceptable behavior at work, but didn’t want the coach to share that information with anyone within the organization. Nielsen herself acknowledged that she once coached an employee who admitted to bullying co-workers.

HR would no doubt want to be aware of such behavior taking place. Nielsen, and a handful of coaches in the audience, made mention of working with employee assistance programs in some instances, in an effort to help employees who might pose a risk to others or even themselves. In these kinds of situations, maintaining confidentiality is certainly paramount. But these and other ethical dilemmas that Nielsen shared this morning seem to underscore the need for HR to help establish guidelines and boundaries with internal coaches at the onset of the relationship.

Opioids Continue to Be a Workplace Scourge

158362155We’ve all heard a lot during this presidential election season about the heroin epidemic that has seemingly left no corner of the United States untouched. Experts say an important factor that led to today’s skyrocketing rates of addiction has been the widespread abuse of opioid prescriptions for painkillers, including those prescribed by doctors for employees covered by workers comp claims. A new report from Castlight Health reveals that this prescription abuse continues today, accounting for a significant chunk of healthcare spending.

Castlight’s report, The Opioid Crisis in America’s Workforce, finds that nearly one third (32 percent) of opioid prescriptions subsidized by U.S. employers are being abused by a small number of employees — just 4.5 percent of the population, accounting for 40 percent of opioid prescription spending. Baby boomers are four times as likely to abuse opioids as millennials, the report finds, and workers with a mental health diagnosis are three times more likely to abuse opioids as those without.

The report is based on aggregated reporting from medical and pharmacy-based claims, including de-identified and anonymous health-data reporting covering nearly 1 million Americans who use Castlight’s health-benefits platform. The report defines “opioid abuse” as receiving more than a cumulative 90-day supply of opioids and receiving an opioid prescription from four or more providers over the five-year period between 2011 and 2015.

In addition to the cost (opioid abusers typically cost employers twice as much as non-abusers in medical expenses annually), opioid abuse lowers productivity and potentially puts other employees at risk, says Kristin Torres Mowat, Castlight’s senior vice president of health plan and strategic data operations. Opioid prescription abuse results in more than 16,000 deaths in the United States each year, the report notes.

The report finds that patients living in low-income areas are twice as likely as patients living in high-income areas to abuse prescription painkillers. The South is home to a significant chunk of opioid abusers, with 22 of the top 25 U.S. cities for opioid abuse located in Southern states.

Rising Levels of Anxiety, Stress and Depression

Earlier this morning, I Googled news stories about “holiday stress,” and found page after page of stories with titles such as “Handling Family Stress During the Holidays,” “How to Make the Holidays Less Stressful” and “Tips for Helping Employees Deal with Stress During the Holidays.”

ThinkstockPhotos-485914233The Andy Williams song isn’t too far off when it suggests, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But for many, it can also be especially stressful.

So I guess you could say the timing of Workplace Options’ latest press release—which arrived in my email inbox yesterday— about the significant jump in stress, anxiety and depression levels in the workplace is quite appropriate.

Workplace Options, a leading provider of employee-assistance programs, recently analyzed three years’ worth of global EAP data involving 100,000 employees (from 2012 through 2014) and found a dramatic increase in the number of those who are reporting serious mental and emotional health concerns.

According to the analysis, the number of cases dealing with personal emotional health issues (general work/life balance sorts of things) remained fairly constant over the past three years. Instances of employee stress, anxiety and depression, however, rose at a particularly alarming rate during that period.

Among the findings …

The number of cases dealing with employee depression increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2014.

  • The number of cases dealing with employee anxiety increased 74 percent.
  • The number of cases dealing with employee stress increased 28 percent.

Combined, employee depression, stress and anxiety accounted for 82.6 percent of all emotional health cases in 2014, compared to 55.2 percent in 2012.

Looking at geographical regions, the rise in depression-related cases was extremely high in Asia (73 percent), while the increases in anxiety-related cases in EMEA and stress-related cases in Central and South America were substantial, at 84 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

I spoke yesterday with Workplace Options CEO Dean Debnam, who just returned from a five-week trip around the world in which he met with hundreds of clients and HR leaders, and asked him to share his thoughts on the key drivers.

At the top of the list, Debnam said, is the relentless push for greater productivity and performance.

In EMEA, he noted, unemployment is still high, but one reason it’s high is because of the pain and expense employers in that region had to undergo not that long ago to downsize. “When the economy started to rebound, they were much less likely to fill positions … because making a firm commitment [in the region] was way too hard to get out of.” So this, in turn, has led to greater levels of anxiety among workers, he told me.

As to the lessons here for HR leaders, Debnam suggested that “just because workers appear to be OK doesn’t mean they are OK.” In response, he added, “you need to give them outlets such as flexible work schedules, you need to be training managers how to identify stress, and you need to do stress audits of your workforce and see where it’s occurring.”

Advice well worth remembering as we enter the New Year and strive to meet a fresh set of new business objectives.

Poll: Mindfulness Training Really Works

OK, full disclosure here. A company that provides online mindfulness programs for employers, insurers, wellness companies 166198718 -- meditation2and employee-assistance programs recently announced results of a survey showing mindfulness training improves sleep quality and workplace productivity, and reduces worker stress.

So consider the source, of course. But much like other vendor polls we occasionally report on, this one seems worth sharing. The provider — eMindful, headquartered in Vero Beach, Fla. — analyzed data from 1,200 employees across multiple countries and found a 29-percent reduction in perceived stress among companies offering mindfulness training.

Also, before taking the courses, employees at the responding companies reported losing an estimated 117 minutes of productive time per week. After taking them, that number was reduced to 70 minutes.

Again and mind you, this is one provider’s claim of success, but it does add to the collective wisdom growing rapidly out there that a commitment to workforce-wide mindfulness reaps benefits worth noting, and considering. (This post by me earlier this year features one company’s discoveries along these lines, along with a link to a column by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, underscoring the value of workplace mindfulness and the importance of a commitment to it coming from the top and being ingrained into the culture.)

Ruth Q. Wolever, eMindful’s chief scientific officer and associate professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says scientific studies on mindfulness “have burgeoned recently, with demonstrated benefits ranging from decreased stress and anxiety to increased immune-system functioning and pain tolerance.”

“The costs of stress for employers include not only absenteeism and losses in productivity,” she says, “but also include medical costs related to unhealthy behavior patterns [such as alcohol or drug abuse, overeating, smoking and sedentary lifestyles as well as] stressful lifestyles that create and/or exacerbate chronic illness [including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke].”

Harnett, in her column, corroborates Wolever’s benefits and adds a few more:

“When all is said and done, mind-body programs seem to be at least as effective as lifestyle-management programs and bring benefits such as decreased stress and sleep challenges, and improved cardiac responses to stressful situations.

“Researchers such as RAND Corp.’s Soeren Mattke indicate lifestyle-management programs do not decrease healthcare costs to nearly the same levels as disease-management programs. However, Mattke related on the CoHealth radio show I co-host that employees with chronic health conditions achieve even better results when they participate in both disease- and lifestyle-management initiatives.

“Finally, as Mattke said and I agree, there are other reasons to offer lifestyle-management programs, including mind-body therapies, to your worksite. Mind-body curriculums will most likely please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”

Workers’ Finances Looking Up … Sort of

Workers’ finances seem to be improving, albeit not by much. The latest survey by CareerBuilder of more than 5,200 American workers shows the number of workers living paycheck to paycheck has finally hit pre-recession levels, according to this release on the company’s website.

Consider this incremental climb: 42 percent of workers say they usually or always live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, over 43 percent in 2010 and in line with levels seen back in 2007; one in five (20 percent) say they have missed payments on bills in the last year, up from 22 percent this time last year; 14 percent of workers making six figures say they live paycheck to paycheck, down from 17 percent last year; and less than one in 10 (6 percent) say they can’t make ends meet every month, an improvement from 8 percent last year.

“A better employment picture in the United States has brought more steady incomes into households and workers are paying much closer attention to spending decisions and savings, says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “The majority of U.S. workers — 72 percent — reported they are more fiscally responsible since the recession and have made a variety of changes to their living and spending limits.”

Still, you have to wonder how much better is “better” when improvements are so fractional and when more than one in five (21 percent) say they have reduced their 401(k) contributions and/or personal savings in the last year just to get by. Or when nearly one-fourth (24 percent) of female workers and 17 percent of male workers say they’ve have missed a bill payment over the last year.

Don’t start letting up just yet on your efforts to make sure all workers know where they can get help and what benefits are offered, including voluntary financial-aid services. And keep keen eyes on the red flags, like workers in hushed phone conversations with creditors or news accounts suggesting we’re headed for the big Double D.

By no means are we out of the woods yet.