Kate Nowlan, CEO of CiC and EAPA UK member talks about the experience of supporting workers on the frontline during this global pandemic

EAPs have been in the thick of the pandemic response since the beginning of lockdown in March; each call opens up another individual perspective on a global crisis, another tangle of anxieties.  All providers will have had their own particular challenges as call volumes fluctuate and companies seek increased support delivered in new ways.

At CiC we deliver EAP services to well over a million employees across the globe, and to every sector.  NHS staff in the UK approach us for support with issues of bereavement, exhaustion, anxiety, fear of contamination, lack of PPE and overload.  The hospitality sector need a listening ear as they worry about financial matters, mortgage payments, the risk of redundancy, homelessness.   Staff from every industry phone in to talk of feelings of isolation, finding comfort from the support an experienced clinician provides.  Global news agencies and NGOs express their need for support when being evacuated from overseas postings or when stuck abroad far from home and family. Working from home has presented a vast range of challenges, and the EAP provides invaluable help – signposting to financial and legal advice or family care experts as well as providing much needed emotional support.  Home life is different now.  Fractious relationships might lead to domestic abuse, isolation can lead to severe depression.  Parents struggle to combine home schooling with work demands.  Teenagers fret at the loss of freedom.

The beginning of UK lockdown initially led to a marked drop-off in EAP call volume for CiC. The implications were still being worked out, key workers were intensely busy, working from home was a novelty – and for some people a welcome change, a break. For those with immediate issues there was the challenge of how an EAP could be accessed, getting the space at home to make the call. But that has been followed by a sharp rise in  the requests for help, both from employees and family members, as the full impact of the changes to everyday lives has become a reality.   Finding space to make confidential approaches to the EAP has not been easy for many, and we know that callers may take their mobiles to their cars or phone from their daily exercise routine to access support.

Clinicians answering phones have seen recurring issues over the past weeks and the role of the EAP has never been more critical.   The use of our Managerial Adviceline has increased dramatically as managers look for new tools and techniques to supervise a remote workforce and boost wellbeing.  Helpsheets on sleep, nutrition, exercise, childcare are requested alongside those that will provide resources to help with stress, anxiety or abuse.   We see an increased demand from the NHS – and also engineering and media –  for training that helps prepare staff for bereavement, a form of ‘grieving in advance’ or anticipatory grief. It’s the kind of critical incident support that would normally be delivered on site, but is now happening via online platforms.

The basic bedrock of a classical EAP is the provision of face to face counselling, on site critical incident support and regular account management meetings with key contacts.  All EAPs had to flex their interventions as a matter of urgency – improvising and innovating with different products.  Face to face sessions came to an abrupt end and the use of Skype, What’s App, Webex , Zoom became commonplace methods of communication almost overnight.  Clinicians adapted superbly to the new way of working, ensuring that callers received the same professional help that customers had always expected.  But online communication also has its down side.  Employees began to complain of burnout.  Sitting in front of a screen for hours on end, and experiencing severe exhaustion symptoms after relentless Zoom video calls.  Restful breaks – needed more than ever – have become harder to take.  It became clear that companies needed regular support from their EAP to help with the range of issues emerging as the crisis progressed.  CiC, along with other providers, has developed and delivered succinct, targeted, live web sessions for customers to focus on sharing an understanding of the changes and looking for resilient responses where possible. Organisations have found these an invaluable way of addressing this difficult topic with their people, helping them to feel they are being offered robust support and opening the channels for communication of potential risks and improvements.

The sudden changes in all our lives – WFH, being furloughed, the degrees of social isolation – have led many people to re-think everything.  A counsellor remarked: “…being isolated and with less work responsibilities has somehow forced some people to reflect about their life…as if  the crisis has taken away all external noise. And for the first time some can think about their life with a clearer perspective.”

EAPs have come into their own during the Covid19 crisis.  There has been a popular myth these past few years that we have had our day, and there were those who predicted the gradual demise of the programmes that began life in the US in the 1930s.   In these strange times as we prepare for a New Normal we know that the companies we look after rely on us more than ever to deliver the highest quality mental health services.  Our clinicians and therapists are professional, expert frontline workers and their constant dedication to providing the very best emotional and psychological support to employees all over the world cannot be underestimated.  It is a privilege to belong to the world of EAPs.

Kate Nowlan, CEO, CiC, www.cicwellbeing.com