Employee Assistance Programs - and Me

By Dr. Walter Reichman

Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, were originally developed by sociologists at Cornell University to encourage employees to seek professional help when experiencing a mental, physical, or addiction problem. Today, 97% of large-scale American companies and 75% of all medium-sized companies have EAPs, positively impacting the physical and mental health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of employees and their families.

Of course, most addictions ultimately affect an employee’s performance, which is why organizations have these programs. There are typically two paths employees take; in the first, in which a manager or supervisor observes an employee’s decrement, the manager must document the behavior, provide warnings, and explain that the employee must go through the EAP process. For an employee voluntarily seeking help, the EAP will request permission from the employee to inform his or her manager. In both instances, the underlying idea is that the employee has job security while going through the process, and there is guaranteed confidentiality about the nature of the problem and the treatment process.

My involvement in the development of this program began when I was 32 years old. I was an assistant professor at the bottom of the salary scale, a father of a month-old son, and my wife was on maternity leave. We had a new mortgage and an empty savings account. One day, a colleague asked me if I would take over a presentation that he couldn’t make at a meeting at the University of Maryland; it paid $125 so I accepted. All he could tell me was that it was a talk on how to change attitudes toward alcoholics. I knew something about attitude change but absolutely nothing about alcoholism. I did some quick study on alcoholism, but still did not understand all that was involved when I set out to the University of Maryland. My plane to Washington DC was late, I missed the bus to the University, and then my taxi got lost. I arrived 10 minutes after my talk was to begin, running up the stairs in a sweat and into a man who asked me if I was the person he expected. When I said yes, he gave me a look that reminded me of the last blind date I had. She opened the door and after she saw me wore an expression of "you are not what I expected.” Nevertheless, he ushered me into a room where the previous speaker was killing time and was glad to see me. I looked around the conference room into 30 male faces who looked at me with anticipation. I gave my presentation and received no feedback from the audience, just blank faces. I remember thinking, get your $125 and get out and forget this day. I completed my presentation to polite applause. The person who greeted me said thank you and invited me to lunch with the group. I really wanted to leave but thought $125 plus lunch will save me a few bucks so I went along with the group, and something unexpected and phenomenal occurred. People came over to me and told me this was exactly what they needed to hear and how great and important my presentation was. I was asked to attend a week-long meeting at the university to help them plan the future of this new program. These men represented the 30 alcoholism programs that existed in business organizations in the United States. The planning meeting would be during a college intersession and they were paying $125 a day. I accepted.

I returned to the University with two suitcases; one with clothes and the other with psychology books because I still had no idea what I could contribute to a problem I knew nothing about. The meeting turned out to be a life and career changer for me. There were approximately 100 people at this week-long session. Its goal was to design a training program for 100 people who would learn to set up what they labeled Occupational Alcoholism Programs using the method developed by Cornell. The people at the session were from government, labor unions, business organizations, alcoholism organizations, and treatment facilities. I learned that Congress had created the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and within this organization there was a division directed at preventing alcoholism in industry. Congress had appropriated $50,000 to each state to hire two people to set up such programs, one in the private sector and one in the public sector. That week and for years afterward, I was involved with wonderful and brilliant people who were “recovering” alcoholics.

One never recovers from an addiction; it is a lifelong struggle. As an example of the people I met, there was a man who went to jail for five years for holding up a supermarket while intoxicated. He was caught when running across the parking lot holding his sawed off shot gun and thinking, “I better drop this before I hurt someone.” He dropped it; it went off and shot him in the leg. I met a CEO whose diet during the working day consisted of six to eight bowls of consume prepared by his personal chef. It wasn’t until his head fell into the bowl of soup one afternoon that it was discovered his consume was vodka. I met a woman who made her mark in her company by drinking the male executives under the table and becoming “one of the boys.” I met a super salesman who was given a Cadillac as a mark of his success and drove it home. He woke up in prison with no idea of what happened to his car. I worked with a fellow who was fired for molesting the wife of his boss at a company party. I met a man who had been a child sex slave to a molester who plied him with drink and drugs. I heard Senator Harold Hughes – the man who initiated the government’s involvement in addiction prevention, and was responsible for moving the legislation through Congress and persuading the President to sign it – describe his years as an alcoholic leading to his failed attempt at suicide. He then sought help, became sober, and committed his life to prevention and treatment of the disease. His brilliance, dedication, and sobriety led him to become the Governor of Iowa and then to the U.S. Senate. He and all those I met struggled to maintain sobriety, and over the years, I saw some of them lose their battle.

I did what I could to offer my knowledge to the preparation of the training program and actually became a part of the training program. I lost one fight with the group: I urged them to have a training program for the Directors of the State organizations to help them understand the goals for these 100 trainees to help them with their work. Without it, I feared that our process would be doomed to failure. For a whole lot of financial and logistical reasons, my recommendation was turned down. The training for the 100 Occupational Alcoholism Professionals was held in Pinehurst North Carolina during that summer of 1972 and I was actively involved. The 100 trainees formed a community and returned to their own states to begin this new program for the United States. Four months later I received a call from the Institute, telling me I was right, that the program was failing because the State Directors were oblivious to the program and were not allowing the program to even begin. I was dispatched around the country to meet with State Directors and the trainees to set them on the course for which they were trained. The process developed slowly over several years, but the program worked and within a few years after the initiation of the program in a company, most alcoholics in an organization were confronted, sent to treatment, and most were in the recovery process.

Then, something unanticipated occurred which changed the nature of the program. There are dozens of causes for detrimental performance. Managers began sending employees who were not alcoholics but were enduring physical, mental, and family problems. The program, as part of its mandate, was required to find treatment for all the conditions that employees experienced that negatively impacted their performance. Because of the success of the programs there were many self-referrals. After a few years, it became apparent that these programs were much more than alcoholism programs and a decision was reached to change the name to Employee Assistance Programs. These programs continue to succeed and proliferate. A professional association was created, and named the Employee Assistance Professional Association. Employee Assistance Professionals were certified as ready to do their work. A discipline was developed and courses and degrees established at recognized universities. A profession had been created. My own involvement continued for many years as the programs grew and developed. Looking back on those years provides me with a great deal of satisfaction for being at the creation of an enterprise that provides such positive outcomes for employees.

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part six of our series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

Email Dr. Reichman directly for more information.