Early in 2005, ICAS International (London) and OSA Group (Sydney), two leading prov-iders of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), announced the launch of ICAS Asia Pacific, a strategic joint venture company. ICAS Asia Pacific in turn flagged off their first regional joint venture company ' ICAS India.
The company hasn’t made too many waves so far. The reason: EAPs are not particularly popular in India. “EAPs in India are of recent origin,” says Abraham Perumbrayil Francis of the Department of Social Work of Delhi University. Francis, who has done considerable work on the subject, defines an EAP as “a set of company policies and procedures for identifying or responding to personal or emotional problems of employees, which interfere directly or indirectly with job performance”.
It is the changing nature of the workforce that has brought EAPs to the forefront. Earlier, most of the employees were illiterate and easy victims of alcoholism and gambling. Their problems were probably more serious than those experienced today, but they were very basic in nature. Company managements tried a paternalistic approach. But most of the time they couldn’t do much.
Although managements were paternalistic, in a strange contradiction, the relationship between managers and workers was normally one of confrontation. EAPs rarely went beyond the in-house doctor and clinic. The prescribed cure for alcoholism was very often a purgative.
Today employees, even on the shopfloor, are regarded as valuable assets. This is more so in new industries such as IT. EAPs are thus coming into their own.
The first swallows have been the MNCs, replicating in India what they do at home. “In 2001, IBM piloted an EAP for more than 3,000 employees in India,” says the company. “Among the focus areas for the programme are managing change, grief and bereavement, marriage and family problems, depression, integrating work and life, and managing personal stress. Beyond printed materials, key deliverables have included orientation programmes, face-to-face counselling, telephone counselling, and referral services. The programme has been successful and enhancements are currently under way.”
At TCS, the company offers “a slew of benefits that go beyond the obvious”. They include counselling, mentoring, career development and stress-reduction programmes. “IT companies face a different sort of pressure,” says a Mumbai-based psychologist. “The real crisis ' and the need for elaborate EAPs ' is at the business process outsourcing (BPO) organisations.”
Companies are setting up counselling centres, anonymous helplines and even roping in social workers in supportive roles. It’s necessary; some studies show that the suicide rate amongst techies is sharply increasing.
Meanwhile, employees are trying out strategies of their own to cope with the new environment. In Bangalore, yoga and meditation are big business. Companies like Infosys and Wipro have even built recreation centres for their employees to unwind.
What has not happened as yet is universal acceptance of EAPs. There is still a stigma attached to seeking help for mental problems. There is a fear that, if you seek help for personal problems, you get a black mark on your career records. When it comes to advancement, it will count against you.
This explains why some companies are trying out anonymous helplines. But things don’t always work out over the wires; some problems can only be solved through face-to-face counselling sessions.
There are enormous benefits in EAPs. A study by Professor John McLeod of the University of Abertay (Dundee) shows that counselling can reduce levels of stress in the workplace by more than 50 per cent. Levels of sickness and absence fall 25-50 per cent. The majority of the people who have used counselling say it has been a lifesaver.
In India too things are changing. Guess who has a helpline ' both on the Net and on the phone ' for its retired employees' The Indian Railways, no less. For once, it is on the right track.
WHAT YOU CAN REAP FROM AN EAP
An employee assistance programme (EAP) can:
• Help cope with work-related and personal problems and challenges that impact performance at work.
• Improve productivity and workplace efficiency.
• Decrease work-related accidents.
• Lessen absenteeism and staff turnover.
• Promote workplace cooperation.
• Manage the risk of unexpected events.
• Position the organisation as a caring employer.
• Aid recruitment and retention of staff.
• Help reduce grievances.
• Assist in addiction problems.
• Improve staff morale and motivation.
• Provide a management tool for performance analysis and improvement.
• Demonstrate a caring attitude to employees.
• Assist line managers in identifying and resolving staff problems.
Source: EAP Association, UK