After the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon stood burning and Flight 93 left a gaping hole in the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans depended on human contact to revive our nation's spirit. Many companies consoled employees and their family members with grief counselors, supported them when financial uncertainty arose and - when there was nothing else they could do - just listened to their fears and worries. As our nation marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, EBN examines the success of employee assistance programs, which gained even greater acceptance and utilization after the terrorist attacks. Employers and experts close to the tragedy share how EAPs helped employees in the immediate aftermath and continue to aid them today in a shaky economic environment.

"I think there was a point in time where there was a stigma [around EAPs], but now they are much more common, and people are more comfortable with [using] them," explains Paul Martino, vice-president of sales at Wellpoint, which has more than a decade of experience in the EAP space.

He adds that "9/11 and the economic impact over the last three years have made EAP programs more acceptable and more in the public domain. There have been two significant things that have occurred that have really put EAP programs into the forefront of employers' minds. One is 9/11." The other, he believes, is the Mental Health Parity Act.


Employers 'just knew they needed help'

Dr. Edward Trieber, CEO of Harris, Rothenberg International, an EAP consulting firm, recalls that in the aftermath of 9/11, stunned employers were "basically saying, 'Help.' They didn't know what they were asking, they just knew they needed help."

His firm, located a quarter-mile from Ground Zero, and others gave companies advice, but also helped individuals suffering grief, trauma or both - many, after all, lost their colleagues or friends in the destruction of the towers.

As the years have passed, the firm conducts webinars or teleconferences on or around 9/11 anniversaries.

By and large, experts say, companies responded powerfully and effectively, considering the scope and shock of the tragedy. Employees were grateful that someone was there answering their calls and helping them talk things through. And EAPs took off.

"EAPs took on a much higher profile in terms of importance and what they can do for employees [after 9/11]," says Rich Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, the world's largest EAP provider.

"[The tragedy] really elevated the profile of what EAPs can do, not just from an emotional support perspective, but from a perspective of intervention regarding resources and help with other, less-traditional things, be it legal issues people face, the financial impact or families that have lost loved ones."


Lessons learned

With offices in the World Trade Towers, Empire Blue Cross (now Wellpoint) was significantly affected by 9/11. After losing several associates in the tragedy, the company not only maintained offices at Liberty Plaza to remember fallen colleagues, but also moved forward with a renewed focus on crisis intervention. Staff now are trained on responding in a crisis, be it a weather event or another terror attack.

Verizon also took to heart the lessons 9/11 provided for how to design and promote EAPs. In the 1960s, the company's EAP targeted recovering alcoholics and was staffed by volunteers. Over the years - particularly the decade since 9/11 - the company has rebranded the program and broadened its focus.

Verizon's EAP is now a 24-hour call center with licensed social workers and psychologists on the line to serve as resources and provide referrals. However, the program goes "well beyond the counseling piece," explains Stephen Cafiero, director of global employee relations and compliance at Verizon, adding that the program also features workshops for employees on topics that may affect mental health, such as financial planning or using humor to get through the day. Approximately 3,000 employees have completed the company's respectful workforce training in last few months, and in partnership with Anthem, Verizon provides domestic violence manager training. Lastly, critical-incident stress debriefing protocols are in place to help employees deal with a death or other incident in the workplace, and involve bringing an EAP counselor or grief counselor onsite to help.

"When it comes to tragedy, we've [reached out to employees] with the EAP and philanthropy," Cafiero says, adding that the programs are blended "into this culture in such a way in that it doesn't have to be sold."

Integrating an EAP deep into the folds of company culture goes hand in hand with connecting a human face to the initiative, Chaifetz says.

"Since 9/11, people prefer EAP programs that offer a human contact, and that is the model we have put in place in response to that preference," says a spokesperson for a large financial services firm that was deeply affected by 9/11. And while the company has responded to the times, adding in social media and webinar opportunities for employees to engage the EAP, it leans most heavily on face-to-face interaction, especially for situations such as grief counseling.


From emotional recovery to economic recovery

A testament to their evolution and wide reach, EAPs not only helped grieving employees after 9/11, but are now aiding financially stricken employees post-Great Recession. According to Trieber, financial issues account for 60% of EAP cases today, and there has been a devastating 33% increase in calls regarding suicide since last year because of the debilitating economy.

Although the trauma is different, the EAP's goal is still the same, Martino says. "The goal of an effective EAP is to see if we can shoulder some of the responsibilities for the employee. As economic difficulties increase, the need for EAP services increases."

The services themselves have increased through the years as well. In the earliest EAPs, typically three sessions were provided; now, six is a more common number, with some employers offering up to eight.

As tragedies occur and employee needs continue to evolve, EAPs will continue to be a first-line defense for benefits professionals looking to serve employees effectively, experts say. "[EAP providers are] sort of the Ghostbusters of corporate America. If you don't know who to call, you call us," says Trieber. "And if it involves people, we'll figure it out."

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