Most people who use their company’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) will call up the helpline of their own accord to discuss whatever issue is concerning them. In simple language, they refer themselves.

From time to time, however, a manager will notice that an employee is struggling with certain work challenges or life circumstances and needs some outside help. If the manager then steps in and suggests that the staff member gets in touch with the EAP, that is known as a managed referral.

Although it sounds simple in principle, managed referrals are tricky on many different levels. A manager may not be sure what is troubling an employee and might be afraid to ask for fear of causing offence. The employee in question may appear to be completely unaware that they have a problem that is affecting others.

The problem may also be having a corrosive impact on other colleagues and on general team morale and performance. Whatever the circumstances, a managed referral requires care, sensitivity and courage.

Identifying the problem

Good managers should always offer a listening ear to employees who are experiencing difficulties. But it is only when work performance or attendance begins to decline that they have an obligation to intervene.

An alert and supportive manager will recognise when an employee is not functioning as well as they normally do. It is also crucial that he or she finds out more about the problem before criticising or even punishing the member of staff concerned. Someone’s work performance can be affected by many different issues. It must also be remembered that they often do not occur in isolation but overlap.

They include:

  • Bereavement
  • Caring roles (with children or the elderly)
  • Legal problems
  • Relocation
  • Childbirth
  • Chronic physical illness
  • Money worries
  • Domestic violence
  • Trauma
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Gambling
  • Sex addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Psychotic disorders

Again, experienced managers will know that while they must always be supportive of an employee facing any of these difficulties, they are not required or indeed qualified to help sort them out. That is what EAPs are for. But sooner or later, they are going to have to broach the subject with the member of staff, which for many managers can be a daunting prospect.

Talking to the employee

Having decided to talk to a member of staff about possibly referring them to the EAP, managers should set up a meeting and try and stick to the following guidelines:

  • Keep to the time agreed for the meeting (30 minutes or one hour)
  • Stay calm (deep breathing exercises can help here)
  • Be prepared for tears, denial and/or aggression
  • If necessary, have someone else in the room to support the process
  • Focus on known issues (such as declining work performance)
  • Don’t get drawn into speculation
  • Make notes in advance and refer to them as needed
  • If the employee becomes too distressed, take a break and reconvene later
  • Agree on a follow-up meeting.

Types of referral

No matter how sensitive the problem, managerial referrals have been shown to increase the chances of employees receiving the assistance they need. It should be noted that counselling is always voluntary. Feedback from the EAP will only be provided with full client consent. There are basically three different types.

  • Informal referrals
    In these cases, the manager nudges the client in the direction of the EAP. He or she does not request any feedback from the employee and it is up to the employee to contact the EAP or not.
  • Formal referrals
    The manager requires the employee to obtain support as part of an absence or performance management process. The employee must understand and agree that the manager will be told of their attendance or acceptance of support and help. Further feedback (such as levels of engagement, prognosis and ongoing recommendations) can be arranged with client consent and agreement but this will not include personal information.
  • Mandatory referrals
    These occur when an organisation requires employees to have counselling as part of its duty of care. They may follow a traumatic incident or apply to employees whose work puts them repeatedly in stressful or distressing situations. Staff members with substance abuse problems may also be subject to mandatory referral, depending on an organisations drugs and alcohol policy. It is important to note in these cases that it is mandatory for the manager to refer the employee and not for the employee to take up the counselling.