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What, Another Crossroad?

The Employee Assistance European Forum’s (EAEF) 22nd annual conference last week in Prague seemed to mark another important crossroad or evolution for the EA field. The Keynote by Jo de Groot set the tone for the conference, encouraging both “fast and slow thinking” for being both innovative and true to our values and experience. Thanks particularly to the Václav Havel of employee benefits, Pavel Prochazka from HP, along with Jeanne Hermes from Medtronic and Alberto Fisicaro from Molson Coors for their “voice of the customer” perspectives.

The presentations, workshops, and panel discussion I had the opportunity to moderate of Kenny Medeiros (EAEF – Portugal), Michele Grow (APEAR – Australia), and Dr. Daniel Hughes (EAR – US) all brought home the conference theme of “EA’s Passion for the Future.”  The increased recognition and appreciation of mental heath, combined with all the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other tech coming at us, reminds of the systems theory tenet of entropy or the “grow or die” theory of development. 

We are at a crossroad again where we risk becoming dinosaurs as we choose to confront, embrace, resist, or influence the direction of workplace wellness and organizational health.  We can see this in our history back in the 1970s when ALMACA (the Association of Labor, Management, and Consultants on Alcoholism) evolved to become EAPA (the Employee Assistance Professionals Association).  There were some very thoughtful and committed individuals then who believed in their hearts that the purpose of EAP was to better identify and treat addictions that wreaked havoc in families and companies.  Employee Assistance shifted in the ‘80s from primarily in-house to contracted, externally-delivered services, and assessment & referral models to brief treatment. This evolution complemented recovering para-professionals with professionally trained clinicians, and there were many heated debates on the direction of the EAP field.  As further depicted in the graphic above, we experienced other shifts in the field.  In the ‘90s we saw the expanded role of EAP in health plans as the ‘gatekeeper’ of mental health reimbursement, and that was seen by some as the path to EAP extinction by some purists who joined the ranks of the Stegosaurus. The inclusion of child & eldercare services, legal & financial consultation, and concierge-type services in the 2000s led other naysayers to the way of the Brontosaurus. And in the 2010s, the expansion to wellness interventions—health risk assessments, coaching, biometric screening, and health promotion and step challenges—were viewed by some as diluting the strengths of EAPs.  Over the past decade we’ve seen a shift in organizations to further value “employee engagement” and “culture of health,” and we lost some good practitioners with that transition.  And now we face the uncertainty that chat-bots, predictive modeling, remote telehealth, wearables, and other tech-enabled tactics bring, and we’ll likely lose a few more EA specialists to the path of the dinosaur.

What’s the anecdote to the inevitable evolution of our EA field?  Dr. Dale Masi, Richard Hopkins, Kate Nowlan, Gary Song, Eric Kung, and other EA pioneers provide strong models of successful adaptation, and we can see commonalities in their successes.  The 500-year old German proverb (das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten) credited to Thomas Murner—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water—provides good guidance; build on the skills and tactics that have marked the evolution of the industry for years.  The consummate EA professional understands that 1) alcohol and drug abuse is devastating, 2) professionalism has afforded earlier intervention for many mental health issues, 3) there are not unlimited resources to treat behavioral issues, and 4) moving upstream to cast a wider net of help extends more care to more employees at an earlier point.  And, combining that expertise is a win-win for employees and employers.  The foundational attributes of the field—listening with compassion, being open to change, defining our work through ideals rather than our identities will continue to serve us. 

Does AI pose challenges to confidentiality, misinformation, and misguided profit?  Sure, it has that potential, but these powerful tools also hold promise.  As health care and privacy expert Jon Neiditz emphasizes in his “The Hybrid Intelligencer” newsletter, this power can be harnessed for good not evil.  No one is in a better position to shape EAP’s future than those committed to our field.  Next stop, EAPA annual conference in Indianapolis this September and the EAEF- and APEAR-sponsored Global Summit in Istanbul next May.  Dinosaurs welcome!

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