Has assistance for problem drinking been left behind?

When it comes to addressing the problem of alcohol abuse, are employee assistance programs (EAPs) keeping up with the needs of workers’ busy lives, or have they lost sight of the purpose that led to the boom in EAPs over the last 20 years?

It’s a debatable question, admits Eric Goplerud, PhD, who directs The George Washington University’s Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems (ESAP) in Washington, DC. "One of concerns we have, working with big companies on improving their EAPs, is that we’re finding that while EAPs have their genetic roots in the old industrial alcohol programs, they’re not identifying many people with substance abuse problems [today]," he notes.

As EAPs evolved from their 1940s-era beginnings of supervisor referrals for alcohol abuse to today’s self-referrals for a wide range of personal and family concerns, Goplerud says too little attention may be going toward the problems of chemical abuse.

"Typically, EAPs see between 2% and 5% of employees annually, but we know that 7.5% of employees, on average, have a diagnosable alcohol or drug problem, so we’re only getting maybe one in 20, and the consequences are that employers and co-workers are bearing an extra cost," Goplerud states.

But D. Scott Richardson, associate vice president for human resources at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, says the evolution of EAPs is necessary to serve the broader needs of employees and their families. "The focus and the function of an EAP has changed markedly in the last 20 years, and is currently under an evolution that will have a larger and more immediate impact than the industry has seen before," he adds.

"The days of only offering crisis services and support to the troubled few’ are ending. The scope of service from an EAP now needs to encompass a much larger spectrum of employee, family, and work-life needs," Richardson continues.

Goplerud contends that today’s EAPs are not adequately asking employees about alcohol problems. "Part of the reason is that people who are trained in mental health generally have very little training in how to treat alcohol problems," he asserts.

ESAP describes EAP follow-up to treatment for alcohol abuse as having two primary goals:

1. to help the employee maintain work continuity during treatment (if the employee is staying on the job while receiving outpatient treatment) and after treatment;

2. to ensure that the employee adheres to the continuing care component of his or her treatment plan, and, in case of a failure to comply with company policy (i.e., a positive drug or alcohol test), continued monitoring.

Goplerud says research shows that sometimes, even a little intervention can make a big difference when an employee is engaging in risky drinking behaviors.

"Some research-based literature says interventions can be as brief as 15-20 minutes and can have a tremendous effect on risky drinking — people who drink and drive, or who binge on weekends," he says. "For alcoholics, brief interventions won’t be as effective."

Goplerud says a recent national survey of the memberships of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association and the Employee Assistance Society of North America identified 15 common types of EAP services — including financial and legal consultation, job placement, career testing and counseling, and executive coaching — that fall outside the scope of traditional EAP programs and require completely different knowledge and skills.

The demand for these services by self-referred employees, in conjunction with frequent lack of addiction training, have left the new breed of employee assistance professional with less time to deal with alcohol problems, he adds.

[For more information, contact:

  • D. Scott Richardson, Associate Vice President, Human Resources, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI 49401. Phone: (616) 331-2215. E-mail: Richards@GVSU.edu.]