Tuesday, March 25, 2008

EAPs: Don't Get Accused of FMLA Abuse Helping the Down Trodden

In your effort to support employees and help them find relief for mental health conditions that affect them, do not fall victim to encouraging employees to seek a doctor's verification of their need to take medical leave for simply feeling "stressed out." It may not hold up under scrutiny and if you are found to have collaborated with the employee to take off work for what management may later determine as a "mental health vacation", you could regret it. Employer's will know intuitively if you are involved in this sort of thing.

The FMLA provides job protection for employees who are sick and can't work for up to twelve weeks per year, if they must care for a family member who is ill. However, have you had an employee client without any sick leave or remaining vacation leave visit your EAP office to discuss taking off work for "mental stress" while having it covered by the FMLA so the absence from work does not jeopardize the employee's employment? Feeling empathy for an employee's plight could make some fall victim of this collusion if you don't stay on your toes.

Be aware that encouraging an employee to seek a medical certification for stress and having it appear as an illness, perhaps by a licensed health practicioner certifying it when everyone knows this is not a bona fide condition, will not endear you to the employer hosting the EAP.

A quick digression and philosphical discussion: As an employee assistance professional, your customer is the employer. (Some folks hate it when I say this. They want it to be the employee.) Your service is employee assistance. The client is the employee, manager, or organization being serviced at any particular moment, but the employee is not your customer. The definition of a customer pertains tp that who purchases a commodity. EAPs exist because of their econonmic cost-benefit justification to employers and employer patronage as customers. If it was not for this purchase, EAPs would not exist. Many employee assistance professionals lose cite of this because they knowingly (or unknowingly) want to see themselves as advocates for the little guy and in their view of the world--not necessarily publicly stated--the employer is considered the power and abuser. More precisely, some EA professionals have bought into the "corporation bad" mentality.

Back to the topic: When you service an organization with an EAP, it's great to act in the "broker" role and help connect clisents to services, but be cautious to avoid the role of "employee advocate." Seek to connect employees with resources, even resources that provide employee advocacy, but don't enter this realm as an employee assistance professional to argue the employee's cause with the organization. If you were trained as human services professional, you've had this lecture in a sociology class along the way, I know, but many employee assistance professionals without formal human services professional training haven't heard this distinction before. (So I'm blogging, man!)

So, my argument is to think in terms of what is best for your client in the context of what is best for the employer, not the other way around. To do otherwise can jeopardize your job security, reputation, and the employee assistance profession in general.

A recent court ruling three weeks ago, in favor of the employer, found that the employee didn't have sufficient justification to take FMLA leave because they felt "stressed out." This case has implications for EAPs. You can read about here: Lackman v. Recovery Services of New Jersey, Inc