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Responding during tough economic times

April 1, 2007
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EAPs can be valuable resources when companies downsize, but they shouldn't underprice and oversell their services

The past couple of years have been an unending roller-coaster ride for the Big Three auto companies and their U.S. employees. Employees at GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler, as well as their parts suppliers, have faced plant closings, downsizing, early retirement offers, buyouts, layoffs, bankruptcy filings, and involuntary separations.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Ford alone is bracing for a reduction of some 30,000 union workers and 15,000 salaried employees by the end of the year to respond to shifts in sales and become more competitive in the global market. Chrysler is considering reducing its workforce by 10,000 union and 1,000 salaried employees, and rumors about the division's possible sale have been circulating. Meanwhile, GM is suggesting that it will decrease its union workforce by 30,000 by the end of 2008.

The Big Three are looking at every aspect of cost cutting and quality improvement, including how their employees are being serviced in the area of behavioral healthcare. Those of us in the EAP business who serve them must balance the level and quality of services we provide with the cost at which we are willing to provide them. With all of the stressors related to layoffs, buyouts, retirement packages, potential bankruptcies, and employee separations, EAPs are facing increasing utilization rates, greater customer consultation, and the potential for more behavioral emergencies in the workplace.

Challenges for EAPs

The challenges for EAPs cover a range of financial, philosophical, and administra-tive/operational factors. Most of us are now quite aware of the erroneous trend in our industry to underprice and oversell our products, resulting in the erosion of core technology and the philosophy that brought true value to our customers in the first place. We must help purchasers to understand that they should evaluate our services on the basis of quality standards and not price alone. EAPs have to showcase the components of their services that make them different and more desirable than their competitors.

Within the auto companies, represen-tatives from union and corporate leader-ship, internal EAP leadership, purchasing, healthcare management, and other areas have a voice in the purchase of EAP services. This is actually to everyone's advantage, including EAPs, as consideration for programming is not driven by price alone; individuals focused on many other aspects of EAP programming and quality have a voice, too. This provides an opportunity for an EAP to work with this team, showcasing its true talent and demonstrating an ability to develop a true partnership with such a large-scale, complex employer.

Yet EAPs need to be cognizant of their customers' financial limitations, especially during such times of economic adversity as we are seeing in the auto industry. However, if we are too quick to jump to “low ball” pricing tactics to capture contracts, as we have seen time and again in our industry, we will set up ourselves and our customers for failure.

EAPs can play an invaluable and active role, along with many other internal and external resources, in the planning, design, and implementation of programming to address issues related to behavioral risk management, layoff/separation activities, and the needs of employees, management-level staff, and the corporation. While historically EAPs have waited for requests to respond to a crisis and critical events after the fact, this reaction falls far short of meeting customers' needs during large organizational changes.

EAPs must be able to adapt their services to meet large global organizations' fluid needs by maintaining close relationships with critical leaders and decision makers to monitor the workforce's needs and reactions to such enormous change. Using a cookie-cutter approach to respond to such needs, as many large behavioral healthcare organizations often do, will fail because it does not respond to unique organizational issues at multiple levels.

Responding on Multiple Levels

At one of the Big Three auto companies, an EAP is playing an active role not only with the national union and company leadership, but also participates in the Local Response Team (LRT) at each company location. As an active team member in discussing, planning, and implementing programming, the EAP can step in quickly to assist not only with behavioral emergencies but also with developing early intervention strategies to assist the workforce as leadership navigates through difficult times. While there is an overall outline for providing behavioral healthcare services, they can be tailored to the individual needs of particular company locations—and particular groups of employees.

Separating employees.Some separating employees might have voluntarily chosen to leave and feel fortunate for any financial benefits for doing so, while those leaving involuntarily might feel negative about the experience. Depending on the size of these groups and their locations, a number of possible activities may take place to attend to their needs. Preplanning meetings with the LRT might lead to a number of activities before, during, and/or after separation activities:

  • Providing information to employees and families about EAP services

  • Normalizing symptoms and creating increased awareness about cumulative stress and how to get help

  • Educational seminars on change management

  • Providing on-site counseling during separation activities or psychological first aid to assist employees in crisis, depending on their circumstances