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Health Care

Employee Assistance Programs Help Organizations Deal With Death and Mental Health Issues

What to Do When Grieving Takes Its Toll at Work

‘I think it (death) should be something that needs to be acknowledged.’

Miriam Rothman

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A professor at USD’s business school and a trained psychologist

Dolphin trainer Mackenzee Bull still chuckles about how her good friend Stan Nyck stood in front of his audience at SeaWorld San Diego with his note cards at hand.

She said that after 10 years on the job, Nyck, 75, still didn’t feel secure in talking to the vast crowds about sea life and animal behavior without his notes.

Then on Jan. 2, the unexpected happened. Nyck was the victim of a fatal car collision.

Bull, 23, still recalls her disbelief when her father told her the tragic news.

Back at work, the reality of Nyck’s death quickly sank in.

It was business as usual at SeaWorld, but not for Bull and her co-workers who disguised their inner turmoil with plastered-on smiles.

The death of a co-worker is a uniquely difficult and uncomfortable experience, most people agree, especially in the busy lives of people today, where the lines of professional and private friendships are often blurred.

– Grieving Replaces

‘Adoption’ Plan

For Bull, who said Nyck planned to adopt her as his “grandchild,” each workday continues to be an unavoidable reminder of the loss.

Fortunately for Bull and others, their employer had taken steps to assist them in working through the bereavement process.

SeaWorld called its employee assistance program, San Diego-based HHRC-Integrated Insights to send a counselor for a one-time group session.

Employee assistance programs, typically an out-service arranged by contract with a group of mental health professionals, social workers, or counselors, are specifically trained to deal with mental health issues.

Dr. Stephen Heidel, president and CEO of HHRC-Integrated Insights, said 300 San Diego-based organizations, or some 150,000 employees, have signed up for their services.

Among his clients are SDSU and USD, high-tech and biotech firms such as Hewlett-Packard and Immune Response Corp., but also government agencies, including San Diego County and city of Del Mar.

– Employees Get

Support And More

HHRC provides short-term support as well as assessment and referrals when problems hinder someone from performing the job, Heidel said.

Typically, employers pay between $1 and $3 a month per employee to assist them with critical incidents. Available programs vary.

Some employers sign up for the phone-assistance line where employees can call in with personal problems.

But most firms choose a plan that offers workers between five and eight one-on-one sessions with a counselor, Heidel added.

This is a better option in the case of a death, said Heidel, a trained psychiatrist. In other cases a simple phone call to a counselor can make a world of difference.

Counselors discuss personal issues ranging from “I am going through a divorce” to “My husband has an alcohol problem” and “I have a problem with my co-worker over the phone every day,” Heidel said.

– Some Clients Need

Immediate Support

But sometimes HHRC gets a call from a client who needs immediate support. When such a call comes, a counselor arrives at the scene within hours.

In the case of Nyck’s death, SeaWorld summoned 15 co-workers for the group session.

It was painful, yet healing, Bull said.

“We sat around the table and everyone talked about Stan,” Bull recalled. “We cried on each other’s shoulders as we were going over the memories. It was very important for everyone to do that.”

Heidel, who said HHRC has been providing EAP services since 1979 in San Diego, said more companies are starting to recognize the need to outsource such services.

In 1997, there were about 20,000 employee assistance programs at companies; 80 percent of Fortune 500 corporations had employee assistance programs in place, according to published reports.

– Many Small Firms

Don’t Have Programs

In San Diego, the majority of firms with less than 50 employees don’t have an assistance program in place today, Heidel said.

Granted, many firms sign up with such programs for reasons other than goodwill. But more organizations recognize compassion at the workplace means doing business the right way, he added.

Last year, Heidel added 50 new local clients to his roster. This year, he hopes to add additional clients as bigger corporations have moved toward outsourcing their employee assistance programs, he said.

Miriam Rothman, a professor at USD’s business school and a trained psychologist, said for most Americans death is a very uncomfortable topic of conversation. By contrast, other cultures, such as many Asian and Latin cultures, don’t fear death but celebrate it.

“One has to be sensitive to the American value system around us,” Rothman said. “I think it (death) should be something that needs to be acknowledged.”

Indeed, some may say death in the workplace is such a rarity, why worry about it?

– Death Affects

4 Million Workers

According to the American Hospice Foundation, 4 million workers experience the death of a loved one each year.

Considering the large population of baby boomers with aging parents, there are likely to be more people coming to work with death on their minds.

Given that memories linger, it is crucial for management and supervisors to offer their staff the ability to grieve and to provide tools to help with the healing process.

Such action saves employers time and money, but also sends the message that they value their employees.

Rothman said while a three-day bereavement period is standard, it’s important for employers to recognize that grieving over the loss of a child is different than grieving over the loss of an aging parent.

Many managers go beyond their call of duty, extending employees more time, paid or unpaid, to deal with bereavement.

– Time Off

With Pay

Rothman recalled the case of a neighbor who had worked for the same company for 30 years. When she suffered a death in the family, the firm first granted the woman two weeks paid leave, then extended it five additional days.

“It’s the milk of human kindness that comes through,” she said.

What’s more, managers are in a unique position to help their staff get through this trying period, she added.

“A lot of people like coming back to work,” Heidel said. The key is to pay attention.

He suggests managers should listen and ask their grieving employee how he or she is coping.

As employees heal, managers ought to be sensitive to any extra workload and inquire if employees are up to the task, he added.

– Managers Should

Be Sensitive

Dr. Russ Pierce, a private clinical psychologist in San Diego who specializes in executive coaching, urges managers to be sensitive.

“Find out whether they (grieving people) would like to be left alone or have conversation,” he said.

Bereavement is a very personal issue. Some individuals grieve for months, others for years, he said.

People need to be aware that bereavement can take many forms, sometimes it’s immediate and emotional with lots of crying, other times the process is delayed, he said.

“A person can have two good days (at the workplace), then fall apart,” he said.

While bereavement is a necessary process to work through a death, for some people the loss of a loved one can take self-destructive expressions, the experts agreed.

– Loss Can Be


“If the process is not worked through, that individual may turn to sleeping pills, alcohol, not eat properly or become physically ill,” Rothman said.

Employee assistance programs can help address these issues , provided employers are willing to support individuals’ needs, added Pierce. Employers need to be aware that for one individual one-time counseling may be sufficient. Others may require more, Pierce said.

This benefits both, employees and employers.

“Therapy may be expensive, but it’s still cheaper than training a new person,” he added.

Most employees, he found, are glad to dive into work.

For Mackenzee Bull, diving into work , or a pool of playful dolphins , was a welcome distraction from bereavement over her beloved friend.

Looking back at it, she said, “We were all fortunate to have him in our lives.”


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