Employee personal problems can wreak havoc on your productivity. But there is a way to help them help themselves--and you. By Jim Cory

You've noticed an employee is showing up for work later and leaving the job earlier. He's someone who's worked at your company for 10 years, always performed well, and gotten good evaluations. Yet lately his mind's been in other places. He forgets to order key materials, throwing the job off schedule. He argues with the client, or with subcontractors.

The root of his problem isn't really your business, but the effects of it are. If your company included an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) among its benefits, now would be the time for you to refer that employee to it.

Private counsel

According to government research, 10% to 20% of people in the workforce have personal problems that interfere with job performance. An EAP is essentially a counseling service paid for by the employer. Here's how they work: Employees with any kind of personal problem -- including health, marital, family, financial, drug and alcohol, legal, emotional, stress, or any other -- can call to schedule a counseling appointment with a trained professional, such as a therapist, social worker, or physician. The appointment can be a telephone conversation or an actual visit. Typically, employees are entitled to a set number of visits per problem through the EAP.

The appointment is free to the employee and confidential. (There are a variety of ways to pay for an EAP. Your provider can help you set something up.) EAPs -- some for-profit, some non-profit -- use constructive confrontation, motivation, and short-term intervention with employee clients to address problems that affect job performance.

Ed Lane, owner of Lane Homes amp; Remodeling, Richmond, Va., signed on for an EAP three years ago. His original intent, Lane says, was to make his company a "drug-free workplace," thereby giving clients greater assurance about field personnel. To that end he set up a drug-testing program. When the company that performed the drug testing asked if he was interested in an EAP, Lane signed on, at a cost of $250 a year.

According to Barbara Bradford, operations manager for Lane Homes amp; Remodeling, offering employees an EAP entitles the company to a 5% discount on its annual $15,000 workers' comp bill. So the cost of the EAP, plus drug testing -- a total of about $550 a year -- is more than made up for by the $750 discount off workers' comp. The service also includes quarterly on-site seminars for employees and separate training sessions for management.

The true value

EAPs "help employers retain good employees," says Lisa Reynolds, EAP coordinator for the Family Guidance Center, a social services agency in Wyomissing, Pa. "Many people just aren't aware of how work-related problems or personal problems affect them physically and emotionally," she points out. "They make mistakes, or they're not productive on the job. A lot of times, if people can get intervention, they can turn things around and return to their former productivity."

EAPs rely on anonymity to be effective. Typically, the only information they provide to employers subscribing to the service is the total number of contacts or visits made by all company employees. Still, Lane says that in the three years he's made an EAP part of his company's benefits package, he's had three employees tell him that use of professionals through the EAP helped them save a marriage or sort out messy personal finances.

"It's much more expensive to lose people," Reynolds says. "And a lot of times it's a real simple thing the person needs help with. The people who come here get well," she says. "They don't lose their jobs."

For information on employee assistance programs and how to set one up or find a provider, go to the Web site of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association at www.eapassn.org, or ask your local hospital for referrals.