Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid challenges the EAP

We’ve had a complaint about our EAP.

Naturally, Big Bad Boss calls me in to explain. The employee assistance program (note the transatlantic spelling) was foisted on us by the US headquarters, so really it is nothing to do with me. I have had no influence on choice of supplier, nor have I had any day-to-day management responsibility. Still, it is someone in our building, someone important, who has made a complaint, so I have to look into it.

Confessions of a benefits manager

Big Bad Boss won’t tell me who has complained, or what they complained about, as the service is confidential, but nevertheless I need to get it sorted. Really? What am I supposed to do, hold a séance? He does say that the employee, a Higher Being from our management team, said it would be just as helpful to type his problem into Google as to get something from the EAP.

I don’t see how I am going to find out more about the service if I am not allowed to talk to anyone about it. I have always fancied myself as a detective, so there is nothing for it but to go under cover.

Calls for assistance

My first fake call for assistance is about workplace stress, because I don’t even need to pretend about that. The counsellor who answers is fluent in English and has a nice, comforting voice, which is all very lovely. But that is as far as it goes. The counsellor talks to me for roughly three minutes before referring me to a list of private counsellors in my area. Clicking on it, I can see they charge between £50 and £100 an hour. Great.

I call the EAP again a little later using a different employee number. Naughty, but I don’t want them to realise I am making it all up. Luckily, it is a different person so they won’t recognise my voice. This time I discuss my concerns over legal issues to do with a fictitious house purchase. Again, I don’t have to dig too deep to act that one out as I know exactly what that feels like. The counsellor is sympathetic and within two minutes refers me to the website of legal advisers. Yet, if I really had a problem keeping me awake at night, I wouldn’t want a website; I would want actual advice.

Later, I call again as another employee, this time with relationship problems. This is a bit more of a stretch of my acting abilities. Not that I haven’t had relationship problems; it is just that I haven’t had any for some time as I haven’t been in what you could properly call a relationship. I tell them I am arguing with my boyfriend every night, and that it is affecting my work. The person ‘assisting’ this time doesn’t even acknowledge what I have said, but immediately refers me to my local Relate office. Is that really the best you can come up with Mr EAP?

Workplace bullying claim

I decide to up the stakes. I call again suggesting I am a victim of workplace bullying and sexual harassment. Again, I am referred to the legal website, and also given a bonus link to the list of counsellors in my area. How comforting! At no point am I told to speak to HR or my manager, which is quite shocking really.

I can’t say I am surprised. When our head office does something for the good of employees, they only do it in order to tick a box that says ‘demonstrate a commitment to employee welfare’. You can be quite sure that no one actually gives a stuff whether employees are happy or not as long as they turn up and do their job. I also know that when head office adds any benefits, it will do so very, very cheaply. Clearly you only get what you pay for, and if you are only willing to spend a tiny fraction per employee, you are not likely to get more than a simple scripted call centre and a few emailed links.

Global travel programme

It was the same with our global travel program (note the spelling again), which was set up to ensure that all employees worldwide are safely covered when they travel. Read the fine print and you find that in an emergency you can call a helpline, and they will tell you where to find help for your problem.

Note: they will tell you where you can get help, but not actually help you; no emergency is actually covered or paid for by the insurer. Yet it was announced to staff as an all-encompassing global insurance, so I had to phone round all the local offices to make sure they didn’t cancel their normal travel policies.

Luckily, the EAP was never really announced to employees with any great splash. I added it to the offer letter as instructed, but that’s about it. It is on the list of benefits in on our website, and our marketing folks always call it out under ‘caring for our employees’ in the corporate collateral, but that is all.

As such, employees must be pretty desperate to remember to use it. Sadly, based on my little experiment, our complainant was right; they would get as much actual help from typing their problems into Google.

Saving on costs

Big Bad Boss doesn’t like hearing that I pretended to be various employees, and I wonder briefly if there is some secret departmental reporting from the call centre. I recommend to him that if we are really concerned about employee welfare we need to engage a firm that actually offers a level of proper first-line counselling. However, I know that will come at a cost that won’t be palatable. Alternatively, we could save on the current cost altogether and just point people at their web browser.

Next time…Candid drowns in emails.