On Wednesday 8th November, at the Oriental Hotel, Lagos, a one-day pan-African conference on Employee Assistance Program (EAP) will be taking place. It is expected that there will be some participants from other African countries in attendance, apart from Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Human Resources practitioners, and other categories of people involved in the growing field of Employee Assistance Program in Nigeria.
EAP is an area of specialised service, centred on on-demand Counselling, that is dedicated to improving and sustaining the mental health of workers. The central focus on mental wellness is predicated on two assumptions that have been emphatically confirmed by universal experience. One of these is that ‘There is no health without Mental Health’. The other is that any disturbance in any part of a person’s life – whether it is domestic disharmony with his wife or persistent financial problems, may destabilise his mental well-being and affect his ability to function in the workplace.
EAP started in the United States in the 1930s, as a result of the observation that many companies were losing employee man-hours due to alcoholic problems that were common among workers. Employers found they could not simply afford to turn a blind eye, as it was affecting their productivity and ability to retain staff.
Having access to Counselling in a way that is not reported back to his employer, and that maintains his privacy and dignity, has been found to work wonders for workers’ morale
From the outset, the participation of employers of labour in trying to optimise the mental wellness of their staff has not been about philanthropy, but rather about the scientifically proven fact that troubled workers are either absent from work, or they function less productively, costing the company dearly ‘any which way’.
An elaborate science along with its evidence base has grown around the whole specialisation of Employee Assistance Program since that beginning. It has been established that anything that adversely affects the holistic well-being of the average worker, whether it is something within or outside the work environment, is ultimately liable to affect the worker’s ability to be productive at work. The common pathway of these problems, which may range from financial difficulties to problems with his spouse, or his child who is not doing well at school, is the person’s psychological health. The traditional definition of health and even the institution of Wellness regimes is some of the more enlightened corporate organisations focussed on occupational and community health issues, such as exercise, nutrition, and prevention and treatment of common illnesses such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension. Many companies have in-house or outsourced Occupational Health services, and more lately, companies have signed their staff onto Health Insurance schemes that cover such grounds.
Despite these developments, it was observed that there was still a gap concerning mental health. Such unmet needs were reflected in high rates of absenteeism from work, as well as in a phenomenon known as ‘presenteeism’, where the troubled worker went to work to fulfil righteousness, but produced at a level that was below his capabilities. Organisations that were insensitive to these issues found themselves with a high rate of staff turnover. All these factors affected the efficiency and profitability of work organisations.
Research in different parts of the world has shown repeatedly that it is cheaper for the modern workplace to invest money in optimising the psychological health of workers than to bear the consequences of large numbers of workers carrying the burden of unacknowledged and unrelieved psychological distress at work. In the end, employers’ involvement in provision of EAP for workers is about the bottom line, and the value-for-money is self-evident.
Although the universal experience of the difficulties brought about by COVID-19 pandemic has helped to generalise awareness about mental health, for several years before COVID, in the USA, the UK, and many European countries, every organisation with a significant number of workers has been required to provide access to EAP for its workers. This is done either as an in-house resource, or is outsourced to an outside entity. The Counselling service covers problems the individual may be grappling with in any areas of his life – in the so-called ‘Eight pillars of Wellness’, such as physical, emotional, social, spiritual and financial issues, among others. The worker may be desperate and feeling on the edge of some catastrophic action such as suicide. He could be in a simmering discontent through which he can barely function. Having access to Counselling in a way that is not reported back to his employer, and that maintains his privacy and dignity, has been found to work wonders for workers’ morale and sense of engagement with his workplace.
South Africa was the first African country to latch on to the benefits and possibilities of EAP. It is now well entrenched in the country’s work culture, to the benefit of South African workers. South Africa is working hard to make EAP specifically relevant to the everyday social problems common among workers in that country. It is also training and certifying professionals to run its counselling services.
EAP was introduced formally to Nigeria through a conference that was held in Lagos in 2012. The growth of the specialisation has been rather slow since then, despite the fact that it will inevitably be Nigeria’s lot to entrench the entitlement of workers to good mental health in Africa, and to define and domesticate the deliverables of EAP for the African continent and its workers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Management and the mainstream of Human Resources practitioners in Nigeria are fully primed for the drive to spread EAP to every workplace, going beyond the present situation where it is mostly evident in Oil Majors, Banks, Telecommunication behemoths, and other blue-chip companies. The workers themselves and the government need to come on board, so that ultimately every Nigerian worker gets to benefit. This is the next level of the journey.
The Second pan-African EAP conference will address these issues and try to draw a road-map for a future of good mental health for the Nigerian worker.