History, Core Technology, and Uniqueness of EAP Counseling

History, Core Technology, and Uniqueness of EAP Counseling

Dale Masi, PhD, LCSW-C


This column will focus on the history of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), explore the field’s core technology, and examine the differences between traditional mental health service delivery and that of an EAP.

Occupational Social Work was a direct precursor of today’s EAPs.  Schools of Social Work, most notably Columbia University, Hunter College, and the University of Maryland developed a specialization in this area of study.  Simultaneously, after 1940, there was a growth of Occupational Alcoholism Programs, initiated by recovering alcoholics in the workplace.  Despite the growing interest in delivering these services, many of them did not succeed because of the lack of cost-effectiveness, social stigma, and poor training.  In 1970, however, the U.S. Congress passed the Hughes Act, which mandated that all federal employees have access to an EAP program.  As the federal government was the largest employer in the United States, this became the single greatest impetus toward the development of today’s EAPs.

The Hughes Act also mandated the formation of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).  The term “EAP,” actually, was coined by NIAAA, which funded two occupational program consultants (OPCs) in each state during the 1970s, and who were charged with helping employers develop EAPs.  This shift from Occupational Alcohol Programs to EAPs led to many changes in the field, including professional staffing and an emphasis on job performance and training supervisors to refer employees.  Staff for these programs were often professionals with MSW degrees.  It was a period of remarkable growth in the field, and by 1980, 80% of all Fortune 500 companies had EAPs.

During this time there was little standardization in what constituted an EAP service, however, and to address that, in 1988 Professors Paul Roman and Terry Blum published their seminal work The Core Technology of EAP.  They sought to delineate the unique aspects of EAPs that differentiated from standard human resource functions in the workplace, and listed:  1) Consultation with, training of, and assistance to work organization leadership; 2) Confidential and timely problem identification and assessment services for employees with problems that affect job performance; 3) Use of constructive confrontation, motivation, and short-term intervention; 4) Referral of employees for diagnoses and treatment and case follow-up; 5) Consultation with the work organization to encourage availability of an employee’s access to health benefits covering medical and behavioral problems; and 6) Identification of the effects EAP services have on the work organization and individual job performance.  Subsequently, optional programs have begun to be offered by many EAPs, including Work Life services (childcare, eldercare, legal and financial referral services), critical incidents stress management, and others, but they are not considered part of the “core technology.”

Unfortunately, as programs rapidly developed universities, and Schools of Social Work in particular, did not develop curriculums to train professionals to staff these programs.  As a result, personnel from various backgrounds have been staffing EAPs as both counselors and management staff, with no particular training in workplace issues.  Too many people, especially counselors, have thought that because they were licensed to deliver mental health counseling, they were able to work in EAPs; in reality, there are major differences between traditional counseling and practicing in an EAP.

Some of the major differences are:

  • EAP counseling is basically short-term, up to six sessions at the most.
  • The supervisor is a key person of importance to the employee. Co-workers are also important in the life of the client, and many people actually spend more time at work than at home.
  • Knowledge of addictions is essential, and a vast majority of counselors do not have any training in this area. Special skills in confrontation are necessary to break the denial of an addicted employee.
  • Group counseling is non-existent.
  • There is an expectation that the counselors will work with managers to assist them with problem employees, and help them to refer employees to the program.
  • Counselors have to understand the workplace “system.” Different companies have different sets of rules and regulations for their employees, which EAP counselors must understand (for instance, drivers who have to follow Department of Transportation regulations or employees with special federal security clearances): EAP counselors also need to understand certain labor laws and federal regulations regarding such topics as equal opportunity, discrimination, and harassment.

NASW Assurance is providing a number of training opportunities for members of EAPrefer, as well as all  NASW members.  This is an excellent and innovative opportunity for Social Workers to receive training, as well as to meet an unmet need in the EAP field.