FE confidential

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Giving lecturers access to advice services is good management practice, writes Neil Merrick.

Employees facing problems at home or in work are often told to visit the personnel department. Depending on the nature of their problem, they may also be pointed towards the college counsellor.

Yet staff often find it embarrassing to be seen using the same counselling service as their students. Many prefer to deny they have a problem at all.

During the past decade, an increasing number of employers have called in outside companies to run employee assistance programmes (EAP) or to provide more limited support services such as confidential helplines.

The helplines are staffed by trained counsellors and experts on legal and financial matters which are often the cause of stress and other problems. Sometimes they direct callers to other outside agencies. No one at work need ever know that the callers have a problem or are seeking assistance.

Just over two years ago, private medical insurers Burke Ford Healthcare teamed up with the Independent Colleges Admission Service (ICAS), the leading supplier of employee assistance programmes, to offer an entry-level employee assistance service to colleges and universities. The two companies believed there might be a significant market for counselling because of the number of lecturers facing redundancy.

In some colleges, it is not unusual for more than 10 per cent of the staff to call the helpline during a year. "Usage is far greater when there are problems at a particular institution," says Gareth Wynn-Jones, divisional director at Burke Ford Healthcare. Elsewhere, usage rates of below 5 per cent are more common, with most callers seeking help over domestic issues rather than problems that arise in the workplace.

So far, 17 colleges and 23 universities have bought in ICAS's confidential employee support helpline at an annual rate of pound;4 per employee, plus VAT. This rate, negotiated by Burke Ford Healthcare, available to colleges and universities regardless of whether they also purchase private medical insurance, represents quite a discount. Similar helpline services start at about double this price.

Where a particular issue is raised by large numbers of workers from one college, ICAS will provide a separate report to the college, together with the regular quarterly usage survey.

Lecturers generally face similar problems to the rest of the population, such as looking after relatives, says Judith Baron, deputy managing director of ICAS. "We deal with a tremendous amount of debt-related issues, which are the same wherever you work," she says.

But other enquiries from college staff are specific to education. "It can be about shift patterns, lack of resources, difficult students or marking exam papers," says Ms Baron. "They may be having problems reaching their targets."

In adition to the helpline, colleges may also choose to pay for face-to-face counselling at pound;70 per session. A full employee assistance programme, with extra consultancy services, costs roughly pound;25 per employee. ICAS also runs training courses for line managers on how to identify and manage stress.

Norwich City College began using a helpline run by an outside employee assistance service firm in 1997. It switched to ICAS about 18 months ago: its discounted rate meant the college could buy a similar service at "a considerable saving", says personnel manager Kate Secker. All 1,200 staff and their immediate family members can ring the helpline confidentially at any time. The college also buys in some face-to-face counselling sessions for staff who require additional support.

She emphasises that the service is confidential and that the college has no way of knowing who calls the helpline. Last year, 4 per cent of staff rang the service. "Those who have been prepared to share with us that they use the service have said it was really useful," she adds.

ICAS provided trauma counselling to members of the public after the Manchester bombing four years ago and the rail crash near Paddington Station in London last year. Ms Baron says it sees itself as a "private citizens' advice bureau" which deals with legal and financial matters surrounding marital break-ups and other crises. All calls are answered by a trained counsellor who, if they determine that the enquiry involves an emotional issue, may pass the caller on to a consultant in its life management section.

The idea of employee assistance programmes came to Britain about 20 years ago from the United States, where they had been developed by employers to combat workers' alcohol problems. Some continue to be run in-house as expanded counselling schemes.

It is estimated that, on this side of the Atlantic, about two million employees and their partners or children in more than 1,000 organisations are covered by some sort of programme. The growth in numbers hit a plateau in 1997. David Robinson, chairman of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association, cannot explain this but says that growth of the services is starting to take off again in both the private and public sectors. The market is dominated by 13 providers.

"We are trying to move away from the image of EAPs as being just about counselling," he says. "We are bringing in all sorts of issues to do with performance and employee behaviour, while more EAP providers offer human resources and health and safety support under an EAP umbrella."

Dr Robinson believes cost is the main reason why most FE colleges do not offer any type of employee assistance programme or restrict it to a helpline. "The largest cost is providingface-to-face counselling," he says."Personnel departments don't have massive budgets to spend."

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