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Workers lean on EAP offerings as the recession takes its toll

Richard Pinckney, employee assistance manager at USA Payroll Inc., typically sees a slowdown in business during the early summer months. 

Not this year.  

"Over the years, the trend is a slowdown in June and July, and in mid-August things start to pick up again," Pinckney says. "Things haven’t slowed down this year at all." 

Pinckney and other employee assistance professionals have seen an uptick in requests for services as businesses and employees grapple with the impact of a global recession.  

The economic downturn is taking a toll on the physical, mental and financial health of the work force, according to a survey conducted by the National Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.  

In "The Recession’s Toll on Employee Health," 21 percent of respondents said worry about the economy and its effect on them and their families is preventing them from leading a healthier life.  

Roughly half of those surveyed indicated recent changes in the economy have made their financial health worse. And many workers, especially older staffers, said their mental health has been negatively affected by the recession. 

Local EAP providers say interest in programs that help workers deal with stress-some of it resulting from the tough economic climate-is on the rise.   

USA Payroll has seen nearly a 10 percent increase in the usage of EAPs in 2009 over last year, Pinckney says. The Brighton company contracts with a mix of organizations, from non-profits and municipalities to manufacturers, for payroll and human resources services.  

Pinckney notes that clients increasingly are seeking help and resources for issues related to unemployment and job loss-such as domestic violence, prevalent among his cases.  

Financial crises are common.  

"People are having a tough time making ends meet for their families," he says. 

Losing a job leads to problems paying the bills, and people are looking at their finances differently, he says. Shopping smarter and prioritizing purchases has become a necessity for some.  

In his role, Pinckney can provide simple tips, like using a shoppers’ club card, or direction on dealing with more complex issues, such as connecting an individual with a domestic violence counselor. 

He predicts that financial woes and personal troubles will continue in the near term.  

"Those who live paycheck to paycheck are not seeing relief or more money in their take-home pay," he says.  

One of Pinckney’s clients is the Episcopal SeniorLife Communities, a non-profit that provides multiple levels of care ranging from independent living to skilled nursing.  

George Altimonda, vice president of human resources, says some 7 percent of the non-profit’s roughly 300 employees use the EAP. Those employees increased their usage during the end of last year, he says, and it has since leveled off.  

Altimonda is a fan of the EAP, noting it is a way to give employees a confidential outlet for discussing personal issues. Episcopal SeniorLife Communities sometimes requires employees to use the EAP as part of a performance plan if an issue arises, he says.  

In addition to working with Pinckney, the organization has taken steps to help workers during the tough economic times. Last year, for example, Episcopal SeniorLife Communities gave each employee small amounts of cash over a three-month period to help offset household expenses, including gas costs. 

"We recognized the difficult economic times and wanted to take some action," Altimonda says.  

Bonnie Mauté, a licensed clinical social worker, has noticed an increase in the length of contracts employers are signing with her firm. Companies are opting for three-year contracts versus the traditional one- or two-year agreements. 

Mauté is co-owner of Associates in Employee Assistance, a clinician-run EAP with offices in Rochester, Fairport and Farmington. She is president of the Rochester area Employee Assistance Professionals Association.  

She works with more than 40 businesses in Monroe, Ontario and Wayne counties, from school districts to manufacturers.  

Mauté has found that stress appears to be the root cause of problems with alcohol, finances and relationships.  

"Stress is a huge issue across the board," she says.  

While treatment is individualized, Mauté often tells those she works with to consider all options and avoid making rash decisions-reminding clients that the recession, while it is likely to linger, is a temporary situation.  

Sarah Felitti, manager of health and welfare benefits at Xerox Corp., says employees dodge stress by using fitness centers, on-site classes, self-directed programs such as the "Eat Well, Live Well" campaign and other healthy living efforts.  

Such programs, Felitti says, "provide opportunities for people to relieve stress and take better care of themselves through activity and healthier eating." 

Though Felitti has not seen increased EAP usage at Xerox, workers continue to tap the service; frontrunner issues include family, marital and relationship problems. The program also offers legal and financial assistance.  

USA Payroll’s Pinckney says the negative effects of employee issues extend beyond the worker. He points to national data that shows roughly one in five employees in every company develops some type of emotional or behavioral problem that affects job performance and, in turn, the company’s bottom line.  

On average, each troubled worker costs an employer more than $6,500 per year in reduced job performance, increased absenteeism and supervisory time, friction among co-workers, damaged customer and public relations, and job turnover costs. "It impacts a company all around," Pinckney says.  

[email protected] / 585-546-8303

08/21/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.

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