Confidentiality is key

Young Woman Sitting Looking at Laptop Screen

There is increasing awareness about the need to support the mental wellness of employees at the workplace.

NEA and CPF were reported to be the “…latest to offer counselling services to staff” (Straits Times, 28 Oct 2013). Their efforts to provide their staff with access to paid-by-company counselling services are to be lauded. But as the author of a letter to the forum points out, the telephone as a platform for counselling is far from ideal (“Limitations of telephone counselling”, Straits Times, 29 Oct 2013).

There is a reason why the best practices guides (e.g., Buyer’s Guide by EAP Association, Buyer’s Guide by EASNA, Buyer’s Guide by the UK EAPA) recommend face-to-face counselling as an integral component of a comprehensive employee assistance programmes (EAP). While workplace telephone counselling provided by masters-level mental health professionals has been shown to have some effectiveness, it is noteworthy that telephone counselling was less helpful than face-to-face counselling for individuals experiencing poor psychological wellbeing (read this APA review for details).

There may be relatively less stigma for employees to access telephone counselling services, but “it has serious limitations as a clinical tool, including the absence of the ability to ‘see’ nonverbal cues from a client” (APA Monitor). Counsellors in a face-to-face session, in contrast, have the opportunity to show interest, concern, respect, receptiveness and support through direct eye contact and open body language. Indeed, research indicates that counsellors need to adjust their strategies for establishing rapport for a televideo conferenced counselling session (e.g., appropriate and careful placement of the videocamera, the use of gestures for taking turns to speak, increased use of nonverbal cues such as nodding and smiling).

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are designed to “improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace, through the application of psychological principles, including specialized knowledge and expertise about human behaviour and mental health”. That is to say, EAPs support the mental wellness needs of employees by providing them with access to confidential counselling services, as well as education and awareness activities such as mental wellness talks, all of which are paid for by their employer.

And EAPs can only work if employees know about them. Knowing that one can seek help from a professional mental health professional is essential, if employees are to use EAP and if employers are to benefit from having employees who are more engaged at work.

But there is one thing even more important than telling employees that there is an EAP at work. Knowing that counselling services are completely confidential is the most important aspect of the EAP. Providing employees with assurance about the confidential nature of the counselling service is key to employees using their EAP.

Employees should know that all information shared would only be released with their written consent (see the limits of confidentiality from this APA FAQ). Even the fact that an employee has consulted with EAP should not be disclosed to his or her employer. Responsible employers will want to know how many employees used the service (to ascertain if it is useful) and the employees’ satisfaction with the service (to find out if employees felt counselling was helpful to them), not which employees used the service.



Getting the most out of your EAP

As detailed in the buyer’s guide to EAPs by the US Employee Assistant Professionals Association (see also this description of EAPs), a quality EAP should provide a 24/7 crisis hotline, confidential assessment and counselling services, referral support, critical incident response service, EAP orientation for all employees, manager training on manager referrals with training support materials, promotion of EAP awareness among employees, annual EAP utilization reports, programme and client satisfaction evaluation.

EAP services should provide access to qualified clinical professionals who adhere to professional ethical standards and guarantee confidential record keeping. Timely responses to manager-referrals and punctual feedback on EAP utility, programme evaluation, and satisfaction further distinguish quality EAPs.

Evident in the EAP pricing per head cited in a UK buyer’s guide to EAP, it’s clear that you get what you pay for. Comprehensive EAPs which offer on-site counselling, critical incident response services, EAP orientation for all employees, and manager/supervisor training, as well as the ubiquitous 24/7 emergency hotline and referral support, will deliver a quality service which promotes awareness and utility of EAP services among employees.

And as we know, accessibility to EAP services, particularly EAPs which focus on preventive measures through mental wellness talks and online resources, is key to helping employees effectively deal with stress in both the professional and personal arena (Azzone, McCann, Merrick, Hiatt, Hodgkin, & Horgan, 2009; Yu, Lin, & Hsu, 2009).