Merritt Island, FL
Number of Employees
Other Services (except Public Administration)
Space Coast Human Resource Association
HR-Specific Employee Assistance Program on Florida’s Space Coast
Human resources (HR) can be a demanding field. The HR role has unique needs, requiring professionals to balance legal and corporate responsibilities in situations that often have challenging personnel, or human, implications. The need for empathy and to be approachable while maintaining appropriate professional boundaries in representing management can be difficult. Add to that the importance of maintaining confidentiality concerning sensitive personnel-related matters, which can be isolating for the HR professional. These workrelated factors can be further compounded by factors in the life of the individual HR professional, as they are not immune to their own life challenges. Space Coast Human Resource Association (SCHRA), a local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter, added the service of an employee assistance program (EAP) to their membership offerings. The program is specifically tailored to address the strain experienced by those in the HR profession.
The 13-member board of SCHRA was deeply moved by news reports of a local mother, Tonya Thomas — herself an HR professional — who took the lives of her four children and then her own in 2012. Andrea Wilkinson, President of the SCHRA Chapter and an HR professional at Florida Today, the local news group handling Thomas’s story, had met Thomas and was shocked by the news, as she saw no sign that Thomas had been in distress. Valarese Poole, another board member and the Eastern region HR advisor to L-3/Engineering & Technical Services, felt empathy from shared experiences of single parenting as well as being a HR professional. Poole also spoke of the collegial environment that is shared by members of the SCHRA, and she hoped that “No one who has to manage the challenges of the HR profession would lack this type of support.” Together, the board decided to take action to provide a unique vehicle for HR professionals to access support, counseling, and other services — an EAP tailored for HR.
Factors Shaping the SCHRA Response
A number of additional factors drove SCHRA to take action. One was the loss of the NASA shuttle program and the associated economic impact to the region’s economy. Many businesses along the Space Coast were negatively affected and had to downsize their workforce. This increased the existing threat of job loss, a stressor that greatly impacts HR professionals, who must handle the termination of employment for others and may have increased concerns about their own positions (Sharma, n.d.). This concern comes from HR roles being viewed as an overhead cost rather than a revenue-generating role (Sharma, n.d.).
For organizations whose executives do not recognize the financial value a strong HR team can achieve in cost savings through staff retention and reduction in turnover costs, HR roles are often a prime target for implementing cost-cutting exercises during challenging economic times (Sharma, n.d.). Figure 1 illustrates the impact of stress at work; one can infer how HR professionals have increased numbers of conditions and factors, their own and those of their supported personnel, that might increase their risk for injury or illness.
Other influential factors the SCHRA team described were access to the EAP and confidentiality. While nearly all large companies have EAPs, smaller companies are less likely to provide these services. In the case of SCHRA, 20% of members represent small (up to 50 employees) to medium-sized companies (51 to 500 employees) that may provide short-term disability as a company-paid or voluntary benefit but often do not provide an EAP. When a smaller company does offer an EAP, it may be a bundled service, i.e., packaged at no additional cost along with other services, such as medical or mental health benefits or long-term disability insurance (LTD) for full-time employees.
One SCHRA board member said that HR professionals may perceive that EAP services tied to LTD are more focused on individuals with physical issues versus those with emotional concerns. In addition, since HR personnel are notified when an employee requires accommodation for disability, a layer of confidentiality typically associated with healthcare services is removed, perhaps making HR professionals more cautious about using a service tied to disability insurance. Furthermore, because a security clearance is a common need for many businesses in the area that are seeking government contracts for the space program, sensitivity around confidentiality may be more heightened than in other areas.
The last factor is that in many small businesses, the HR professional is often a generalist who handles hiring, firing, business development, payroll, compensation, training, benefits, lay counseling, and ethics issues. When there is no access to an EAP, the isolation can be acute. The new HR-specific EAP provides access to a confidant with HR experience who understands the breadth and weight of these issues.
Given that smaller employers may not offer an EAP, the SCHRA board recognized that a specialized EAP could be a helpful workplace intervention for their members. This service fills a void for those who may not find needed support in navigating personal challenges as they intersect with the demands of the HR profession. The board members, some of whom represent larger businesses, leveraged their contacts to collect the names of a number of EAP vendors that provide specific services for HR professionals. Using Keystone Benefits as broker, they used this leverage to provide insights that smaller businesses in the HRA or in the larger community may not have had, to begin the selection process to locate an EAP that could provide:
Stand-alone EAP services: The product sought was to stand alone from other insurance coverage. Given the size of the client base, an estimated 100 SCHRA members, finding a cost-effective program that met the other requirements was a consideration.
Greater sense of confidentiality in counseling services: This was a primary concern and a sought-after function for any potential vendor.
Understanding the role of an HR professional: Having EAP counselors with access to senior HR professionals was essential to increase understanding of the unique challenges facing HR.
SCHRA board member Dean Rosenquist, of Craig Technologies, recommended Employee Assistance Group (ESI), which was selected as the provider by the board. ESI’s TotalCare EAP product was chosen due to its focus on:
Counseling: Masters-level or doctoral-level counselors available via phone and in person (confidential apart from legal reporting requirements such as threats of harm to self/others or child abuse).
Access: to those with Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification for complex employee issues faced by human resource managers or supervisors.
Management: solutions product that includes the following training areas:
Core competencies in communication, performance management, and personal productivity
Advanced supervisory skills in motivation, conflict resolution, and managing change
Team leadership and team management skills
The EAP product selected already existed, but it had not been purchased by an association of HR professionals. It opened an avenue for SCHRA members to find answers to both personal and personnel problems, when they might not have colleagues in their own businesses with whom to collaborate.
Human resources professionals are often the first line of response for employees in the face of staff behavior problems, violence in the workplace, sexual and other harassment issues, hiring and termination, and discrimination issues. While it is in their job description to handle employees with such issues, it should be remembered that HR professionals are not immune to the impact of these issues, particularly if they are also facing similar challenges. TotalCare EAP covers specific issues related to the HR profession and a variety of other problems and solutions that are constantly evolving, noting on their website that, “Sometimes an HR manager just needs a reality check or a second opinion.” SCHRA, partnering with TotalCare EAP, has provided a means to do just that for their members.
In order to inform members, SCHRA sent an outreach e-mail informing members of the opportunity to utilize the program. They also provided quarterly information sessions and training on what the program offers and how it can be utilized by the members and their families (it does not include the member’s supported employees). In addition, the program was featured in an article titled “Inspired by tragedy, Brevard assistance program wins national award” (Barchenger, 2013) in Florida Today. The news coverage made the larger community aware of this opportunity through SCHRA. Access to the program can also be found through the SCHRA website for their HR professional members.
To move forward with the EAP, the board of SCHRA looked for funding and found many community businesses that recognized the unique needs in their area and were willing and ready to contribute funds to obtain the resource. Through existing relationships with the local business community, the following supporters joined the effort for sponsoring the EAP in 2013:
Space Coast Human Resource Association, with Board of Directors as individual donors—Thomas Bliss, Valarese Poole, Dean Rosenquist, and Andrea Wilkinson.
Craig Technologies: a nationwide technology firm that delivers award-winning engineering and technical solutions to both commercial and government clients.
Keystone Benefit Group: an independent, full-service agency that customizes plans that meet employee needs through group health, disability, life, long-term care, retirement plans, and more.
Bliss Consultants, Inc.: an employee benefit administration and consulting firm providing more than 40 years of quality fee-based professional services for business and their advisers with emphasis on customer satisfaction, a quality product, and professionalism.
Ford Harrison LLP: attorney practice that focuses on all aspects of labor and employment law.
PROforma Arrow Solutions: offers a broad array of printing, promotional products, and related graphic products and solutions.
Results Thus Far
Wilkinson states that among individual Space Coast chapter members, 403 contacts with the EAP were made by members and their family members over the first year. Specific data on the type of contacts or topics covered in counseling is not reported back to the SCHRA board, in order to maintain the strict confidentiality that was promised to members. Given the intense focus on confidentiality, and that the program highlighted the EAP’s service of counseling, the presumption is that the majority of these contacts reflect counseling services. The program is also helping SCHRA thrive as a professional association despite the many challenges to their community. While the SCHRA membership had dipped to 53 members at mid-year, it rose again to 118 members, which is believed to be in part due to this EAP program offering.
“The board considers this one of our most successful programs, both seeing the continual use of the support materials, and through members sharing the personal and meaningful impact of using the program for themselves and their children,” says Wilkinson. This positive response and increased membership led to SCHRA covering funding for 2014 following the 2013 locally sponsored year. The board is still reviewing future sustainability, and they hope that the Florida is currently considering the program for its other 28 chapters in the state.
This cooperative EAP effort was recognized by the national Society for Human Resources Management organization as a recipient of a SHRM Pinnacle Award in 2012 (Society for Human Resources Management, n.d.). The SHRM Pinnacle Award Program is an annual recognition program honoring up to seven of the highest achievements in affiliate development and contributions that enhance the development of effective human resource management.
What Employers Can Consider
The SCHRA responded to a tragic event and took action toward creating a better future for a region facing challenging circumstances. We urge you to keep in mind the particular challenges that face your human resources employees and how you might best support them as they support your organization. We are interested to hear what you, as employers, are already doing to support your employees, including HR professionals, so we can share your examples.
Consider options to strengthen your community and create supportive and protective factors for those around you that may help fend off the risk of injury or illness.
Follow the example of collective purchasing power. Whether you partner with local businesses directly or leverage existing employer coalitions in your region, by using a collaborative approach you can create various industry-specific or company size-specific solutions that may have a great impact.
Be sure to inform your employees about all the services available to them through your EAP if you have one. Periodic training on how to access the services and examples of how the EAP can be used can remove perceived roadblocks and encourage help-seeking behavior before problems escalate.
For communities with unique industry-specific needs, a local EAP with an understanding of the particular challenges of the region and industry culture may be a helpful resource.
About Space Coast Human Resource Association
Space Coast Human Resource Association (SCHRA) is an affiliate chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), chartered in Merritt Island, FL. Named for the area that is home of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, SCHRA has been a local starting point for networking, information, professional development, and continued support of excellence in human resources (HR) since the late 1950s—for those new to the HR field and those with many years of experience.
Kate A. Burke, MA is associate director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-907-8586.