Waving the magic wand at work

What employees want

According to the results of a Gallup poll reported last year in a Straits Times article “S’pore staff ‘not engaged’ at work“ (8 Dec 2013), only 10% of employees polled reported feeling passionate and motivated about their work. Given the benefits of engaged employees (including lower absenteeism and turnover), it seems in the interests of employers to do more to boost engagement among employees.

An older study on local employees conducted in 2011 indicated monetary remuneration (including benefits) to be a key motivating factor. While fair compensation is cited as an important factor for creating a conducive working environment for employees (“What really motivates employees?”, Forbes, 26 Nov 2013), it’s important for employers to be aware that monetary rewards have their limitations. This is because monetary incentives reduce employees’ intrinsic motivation — referred to as the crowding out effect (Frey, 1997).

Extrinsic motivation produces relatively lower levels of task performance (read about those research findings here). Employees whose performance is motivated by a tangible reward, such as financial incentives, tend to put in less effort compared to employees driven by intrinsic motivation (assuming fair salary compensation). In contrast, recognition for work well done and guidance for career advancement in the form of coaching and mentorship are on employees’ wish list (see this list on Gallup). Not surprisingly, the study on 500 workers cited above finds local employees expressing the desire for their employers to provide and support a collaborative work environment.

According to Gallup, engaged employees are those with friendships at work. A 2012 study by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training articulates one of the key drivers for employee engagement — it is the relationship an employee has with his or her immediate supervisor. Building trust and rapport into the supervisor-employee relationship takes practice (here are some useful tips and guidelines), but reaps benefits in the long term.

More importantly, it is not necessary to assume that managers have an innate ability to listen and communicate effectively. Neither do all supervisors know how to provide feedback to employees. And mentorship requires bosses to genuinely care about their team. These are skills to be acquired through training and then honed for many more years to come.

There’s no magic wand for motivating employees. Dangling carrots can help initially. But recognizing work well done and providing guidance to achieve optimal performance will more likely to lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

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.

 

No idea that we had an EAP!

The benefits of corporate wellness programmes range from a return-on-investment or ROI of US$6 to a decrease of up to US$6 in health care costs.

An 2009 EASNA research note by Attridge and colleagues documents an ROI of US$3 to US$10 for every dollar invested in an employee assistance programme. Similarly, analysts in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article report a US$6 savings in healthcare costs for every dollar spent on employee wellness programmes, while recent data from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans for their Wellness and Value-Based Health Care survey revealed a US$1 to US$3 decrease in overall health care costs for every dollar spent on wellness programmes.

However, no organization can possibly reap the benefits of an EAP or corporate wellness programme if employees aren’t aware of the programme in the first place. As Miller asserts in a recent article for the Society for Human Resource Management“communication is the key to wellness success”.

Azzone and colleagues (2009) report that employees use EAP counselling services when their employers actively promote EAP services. Others make the cogent argument that periodic communication with employees to evaluate client satisfaction with EAP services not only demonstrates the value of the programme, but raises employee awareness about EAP services (Moore, 1989; see also Frost, 1990). As noted in a review by Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, and McCann (2007), employee awareness of EAP services and confidence in the confidential nature of EAP counselling are key to EAP utility. This is demonstrated in an empirical study sampling participants from six worksites: Trust and confidence in EAP services reliably predicted EAP utility (French, Dunlap, Roman, & Steele, 1997).

EAPs are only as effective as the efforts that an organization (and its EAP provider) makes to ensure that employees are aware about EAP services and the confidential nature of EAP counselling services.

What’s the return on investment for EAPs?

“The typical analysis produces an ROI of between $3 and $10 dollars in return for every $1 dollar invested in the EA program.”

That is what Attridge and colleagues have reported for the Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA) in a 2009 research note, first published in their “Selecting and Strengthening Employee Assistance Programs: A Purchaser’s Guide” publication.

In a study of university employees with the majority having access to face-to-face EAP counselling services, Phillips (2004) found improvements in work productivity for 59% and 62% of 704 and 1,206 cases from 2002 and 2003 respectively. The data published in Employee Assistance Quarterly revealed an ROI of 3.5:1 and 4.3:1 in 2002 and 2003 respectively (Phillips, 2005).

Another empirical study sampling employees with access to face-to-face EAP counselling services demonstrated less absenteeism and improved work productivity for 50% of 882 cases (Kirk, 2006).

In a paper presentation at the 2003 APANIOSH Work, Stress and Health Conference, Attridge (2003) reported improved an average 43% gain in work productivity for 57% of 11,909 cases from a national EAP provider supplying counselling services mostly by telephone.

A more recent presentation at the 2007 Employee Assistance Professionals Association Annual Conference, Baker (2007) documented reduced presenteeism: Based on 3,353 cases from an national EAP provider supplying telephone counselling, low-productivity days were reduced from an average of 30 days to as few as 3.4 to 8.0 days, resulting in an average gain of 58% in work productivity.

In addition to recognition that effective EAPs produce greater work productivity, better employee engagement, less absenteeism, less presenteeism, and reduced turnover, it’s gratifying to know that the return on investment for EAPs isn’t different from that reported for corporate wellness programmes: Berry, Mirabito, & Baun reported in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article that “every dollar invested in the intervention yielded US$6 in health care savings”.