Employee assistance program for holidays, and anytime

Published 10:10 pm Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Suzanne Braxton Fullwood wants people to know that it’s OK to talk to someone when they’re struggling. From her own personal experience of losing both of her parents within a 47-day period of 2016, the holidays are especially tough time for her.

The client executive with the Optima Health Employee Assistance Program calls this period from October through New Year’s Day the “Holidaze” because it can be tough on people who may withdraw from the world as they cope with their own personal turmoil.

But with an employee assistance program, or EAP, that is offered with most employer health insurance plans, people can use it as a resource to help with personal, family, relationship and financial challenges.

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Still, Fullwood said the program is underused, as people tend to be reactive more than proactive in self-care, so she tries to make sure people are educated about it.

“I’m experiencing it myself,” Fullwood said, referencing her parents’ deaths. “Whereas everybody’s excited about the holiday, I’m feeling like, ‘ahhh, OK.’ Part of the training that I do for emotional self-care, I tell people that you have to be true to your feelings. So I can’t do what society tells me to do. I have to do what I have to do and feel it out so I can make it through. The holidays are kind of tough on people.”

In her experiences, she notes that people go through feelings of sadness, detachment, various emotions and overall withdrawal.

“When we get out there and we do our presentations, we assure them that it’s OK to talk to somebody,” Fullwood said, “because there’s always that stigma out there of talking to a clinician. But it’s not about being afraid to. It’s being able to get the help.”

The program, according to Melissa Back Tamburo, the director of the Optima EAP, is a short-term solution-focused counseling service that is offered through an individual’s workplace. Optima EAP contracts with area businesses, including Suffolk Public Schools, to provide these services for their employees and their families.

The services are not open to the general public, though most companies who provide health care to their employees have access to an employee assistance program, even if it’s not through Optima.

“If somebody needs help or is seeking services or support, or has questions about that kind of thing,” Tamburo said, “we always guide them back to their human resources department to ask them, ‘What’s the number? Who do I call?’ And if we get a call from somebody who’s not one of our contracted customers, we don’t leave them hanging and say, ‘Well, we can’t help you.  Bye.’ We try to get them either guided back to their HR, or hooked up with some community resources.”

In 30 years of being in this business, Tamburo said this has been one of the busiest years, with more than 10,000 cases among all entities that use the Optima EAP program. Each case, she said, averages about 2.5 visits with the person using the service.

“This year is busy,” Tamburo said. “It’s a bit more than busy. And other EAPs I’ve talked to across the country, everybody’s saying the same thing. The demand for mental health services is really high. And the availability of services is scattered.”

Tamburo said EAP services run the gamut — family and relationship problems, parenting and co-worker issues, job performance challenges, and the top three areas people seek help with are for stress, relationships and depression.

EAP can only provide a limited number of sessions, so if, for instance, someone needs help with an eating disorder, they may not treat the disorder, but can do a good assessment, Tamburo said, and get them connected to resources to help that person.

“One good benefit about the program is that when the businesses purchase the program, the benefits are covered at 100 percent for the first XYZ number of visits,” Fullwood said. “It can be anywhere from three to eight (visits).”

In that time span, there’s no co-pay, no deductible and no co-insurance, and the benefit extends not just to the employee but also to everyone in that person’s home.

Both Tamburo and Fullwood stress that while the holidays bring out more need for the services, people can contact their health plan’s EAP anytime.

Consultations can take place over the phone, in person or virtually, and other than for threats of harm or if it has to get court records where HR would have to get involved, everything is kept confidential and not shared with the employer or anybody else.

Any EAP would not work, Fullwood said, if it were not confidential.

Part of the EAP also covers critical incident stress management. In those cases, Optima EAP provides services to the businesses or agencies who use its service to help in a time of crisis.

Anyone who has Optima Health as their insurance and looking to access information about the program can go to optimaeap.com. The website, which will be revamped in early January, has information about the program and its scope.

“EAP is not just EAP. … There’s a lot to it,” Tamburo said. “It’s a needed benefit.”