In this expert interview with Kathy Greer of KGA, Inc., we talk about employee assistance programs and the benefits they provide to both employees and employers.
Interview with Kathy Greer
Mari Ryan: Hi, and welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I’m Mari Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Kathy Greer. Kathy is the founder and chairman of KGA, Inc., a Massachusetts-based employee assistance company. Kathy provides leadership to the KGA team, while working on Business Development, Acquisitions, and Marketing. She earned a B.S. in Management from Babson College, and a Master’s in Education in Counseling from Northeastern University. Kathy, I’m so excited to have you here with us today.
Kathy Greer: Thank you for inviting me, Mari. I’m delighted to be here.
Mari Ryan: Great, thanks. Today we’re exploring the topic of employee assistance programs. For a long time now, employee assistance programs have played a very important role in the wellbeing of employees. Kathy, I’m curious, there’s a lot of concern about the impact of mental health and substance abuse issues on overall wellbeing. Have you noticed a change?
Kathy Greer: Yes, great question! There’s a lot more data that’s come out to support what you just said, that there’s a huge connection between behavioral health issues and medical spending, as well as good research on the impact of mental health issues on productivity. Both of those are fairly new, just in the last few years, we’ve seen great data. An example might be looking at the impact of stress on medical claims, and they’re now … when we think about some of the more serious, larger spending in the medical claims area, for example, heart disease or diabetes, there’s a real connection, a stress connection. If people have depression or anxiety, or perhaps a substance use disorder, those are going to be driving those medical claims even higher than they already are.
Mari Ryan: Interesting. Is stress one of the things that you see as being one of the top drivers of reasons employees are calling an EAP-type service? What are you seeing as one of the real concerns that employees are needing and seeking help for?
Kathy Greer: I’m using the term stress very broadly. You can imagine how many things create discomfort for someone that might reach out and call the employee assistance programs. What we’re finding is that there are a lot of calls that come in about … people who are looking for counseling, and they don’t know where to start, they aren’t sure if they need it or not, and they need someplace to turn. The EAP is a great place for that because when it is set up with the employer, it doesn’t cost the employee anything, and it’s available 24/7. The key is it’s a program that is always there to help provide service to someone. It’s not something you can find on the open market; there isn’t any comparison. You have to work for a company that has a good EAP to get good service.
We get calls for both emotional distress, and also work-life issues. For example, someone might call because they have depression and they are not sure they might benefit from seeing a psychologist and getting medication, and they’re in a lot of discomfort and pain, they’re not at their peak productivity point, and they’re scared. That could be a very common call. We have people calling with marital issues, legal problems, financial problems – just about everything you can think of. We have a whole team of workplace specialists that can help people find resources when they need it.
Mari Ryan: It’s interesting; I think there is some misconception, perhaps, about the services that are available from an EAP, and I think people think of it as the traditional way that your industry grew up from substance abuse and mental health issues. In reality, you offer services on a whole range of topics, almost more “concierge,” help me find a way to solve whatever, fill in the blank, problem.
Kathy Greer: That’s true, Mari. It’s really grown. The industry was born back in the ‘40s, and it was specific to substance abuse, but in the ‘70s when everyone became more aware of the impact of stress, then the EAP became someplace where you could bring almost any issue. We have a combined EAP and work-life program for a very specific reason, and that’s because we know that people don’t usually show up with just one problem. They usually have some practical issues that need to be solved, as well as, perhaps, someone else needs some support [indecipherable - 0:06:03.9] So, by having a whole range of services and specialists, we can help people through whatever that situation is that they’re facing.
It really is very broad. You mentioned concierge; we try to stay away from that word, only because it implies that we might get people movie tickets or theatre tickets, or trips, and that’s one thing we don’t do, but we do almost anything else. People call us for all kinds of reasons. It might be as simple as we’re moving, we need a mover. We don’t know where to start, we don’t know what we should be looking for, and we have work-life specialists that will find them some choices of movers, tell them how much it’s going to cost, give them some tips, and it’s really helpful.
Mari Ryan: It’s interesting because if you think about all the things – you use the term stress, and that’s a broad term, understandably – you think about all the things in our lives, and I think moving is a great example. Think about the stress that puts on an individual and their family, and how it takes them away from their ability to focus on work and be productive in the workplace. It makes perfect sense to me that these are the kinds of services that people can call about because it does impact their whole life.
Kathy Greer: Right, and we hear amazing stories every day. We had a woman call who was a senior manager, who had a very important project going on, and her partner got a breast cancer diagnosis, Stage 4. She was looking at how am I going to figure out all the second opinions we need, all support we might need at home, and what am I going to say to my boss? He’s under a lot of pressure with this project. By calling the EAP, she was able to get some reassurance and coaching about how to have that conversation with her manager and also get some advice on resources that she could take advantage of. For instance, she and her partner needed a different child care arrangement during the time that she would be getting treatment, and we were able to help find that option for them, and make sure our researchers would check availability and how much is that going to cost, and do some of the legwork and make some of the phone calls so she could focus on the ones that she needed to focus on.
That’s an example of one of the complicated cases that come in here. We often will get a divorce situation where someone needs emotional support, but they also need to talk to an attorney, and they don’t know where to start, or they may need a financial planner to talk to. There are lots of complicated situations that people are trying to cope with.
Mari Ryan: Yes, it sounds like to me this is a tremendous reassurance for someone to be able to know they have someone they can call, they can get the support they need, they can get in touch with the type of specialists, or individuals, specialty services that they need. If you wouldn’t mind chatting for a moment about … you have a service that I think is fabulous in terms of overall employee wellbeing, and that has to do with sleep. Can you talk about that for a moment?
Kathy Greer: Sure. We recognize that sleep problems are extremely common, and we read about that a lot more than ever before, but it’s such a double-edged sword because once you start having sleep problems, then you may have productivity problems, and when you’re worried about work, then you have more sleep problems, so it can be a vicious circle. We have a sleep coaching* program when people call that they can be in, and it has some cognitive behavioral components to it, so we get what they’re thinking about around sleep. Some of their basic sleep [inaudible - 0:10:29.6 sounds like hygiene] because often people are not aware of the effect of sugar or caffeine on their sleep patterns, or maybe it’s what they’re doing right before that; they’re choosing that time to exercise and not realizing that is having an impact. So, the educational component is important with the sleep coaching. Generally, we find that people need just a few sessions of counseling around that, and it can make a big difference.
Mari Ryan: That’s great. In the research that we do with our clients, we’re seeing sleep as being a significant issue. The numbers are almost astounding; forty to close to eighty percent of a workforce saying they are not getting the sleep that they need. I’m so excited to hear about this type of service, and I’m sure you’ve probably seen a lot of demand for it.
Kathy Greer: I think there’s a high level of interest in sleep. Sometimes it does happen in the EAP that something will be in the media a lot and we get more calls. That’s helpful to remind people there is something they can do something about. Often, people feel powerless when they are not sleeping well; they think they are the only one. Then they read something and they realize gee, maybe there is help.
Mari Ryan: Yes, it’s great to know that this is such a great resource to have available to them. One of the challenges we see in working with clients to develop their wellbeing strategy is that many of the benefits, such as EAP services tend to be siloed. Can you give some examples of how EAPs are integrating with other wellbeing programs?
Kathy Greer: We think this is important because a lot of the clients that we work with are buying other wellbeing services that many not be well integrated. When you’re working with an organization we know that’s a good thing because you already have people talking to each other and integrated because you’re looking at it more strategically. We also work with smaller organizations that buy various wellbeing programs and they never talk to each other. We always try to initiate some kind of wellness integration meeting of some type. If we can’t get a client to do that, we at least ask for information about some of the programs they may have purchased. We make sure the counselors have that on a screen when someone calls in. For example, let’s say they bought a legal service that goes beyond what we do. We do more like a half hour consultation. Some companies buy programs where you can get legal work done and there is a stress component* involved in someone asking for legal assistance. We can tell the person about that program, because even though the benefits professionals may have tried hard to get that across, people forget. They hear something in new hire orientation and then they don’t remember they have that. That would be one example.
We have one client that has a wellness coordinator that’s on site in the fitness center all year. She’s good at making referrals to the EAP because will come over and talk to her about what is going on in their life, and how stressed they are, and she’ll remind them that we’re there. That’s a great outcome of integration. That happened after getting to know her and having some meetings.
We also like to know what the health plan has available to people, so that we can remind them of a service that [indecipherable - 0:14:33.6], especially in the wellbeing area. Another example of integration would be the work that we do with the disability departments of our companies. They are talking to people who may be going out on leave for a happy thing, like having a baby, but there’s also people going out for surgery, or going out for some kind of mental health treatment. If they are prepared to talk about the EAP, they can make sure the person knows the EAP is available for them during their whole time on leave.
I could give you a lot more examples, but the more we know about the other services, and the more the other services know about us, that’s when it works well.
Mari Ryan: I’m delighted to hear that, because that’s an important element about the work that we do when we’re working with our clients to help them develop their strategy, is that all of these pieces have to fit together, that’s how we help support the wellbeing of the workforce when all the pieces really do fit together. It sounds like you’re doing a great job with that.
Kathy Greer: We’re always happy when we hear that you’re involved in a company, because we’re going to have help doing that. One of the biggest challenges in EAP and work-life is getting the word out and making sure people know it. I think we are well-known for our communication tools that we have and our collateral, but we still need to meet people, go to stakeholder groups, and hear what they have to say, and form relationships throughout the company, and that’s a lot easier when there’s a strategic wellness program in place, like the one that you have.
Mari Ryan: Well, thank you. Thanks so much for that, I appreciate that. Let’s talk a little bit about the role that your team plays. We hear so much in the news; the news is dominating so many elements of people’s lives today. Social media is bringing us information, we’re notified about tragedies in a heartbeat, and there’s a lot of issues going on in the world with terrorism, violence, sexual harassment. I’m curious as to how are you and your team responding to some of this trauma that’s happening in the world?
Kathy Greer: That’s a great question. I’ll start by saying we wish we could do more, but what we do is we pay a lot of attention to the media to see what’s going on. That hasn’t been hard, lately, because that’s all that you hear. We know when a traumatic event happens, whether it’s a natural disaster, terrorism, some of the other things that you mentioned, it often brings up issues for people. They're hearing that news, but they’re also feeling an emotional reaction that is more intense than it was the day before they heard that. One of the things we do is we always try to remind our client organizations that we’re standing by to help, and we do that by sending them a note after every incident – there’s been a lot of incidents; it’s been unusual. The purpose of the note is to remind them that some people do need more emotional support, and it’s also a note they can forward to their workforce if they want, or post on the internet to remind people. People do sometimes forget that might be something we could help with.
There has certainly been for calls for preventive programs. We have an HR side of our business where we do sexual harassment training, and bullying prevention training, and that type of thing. There’s been a spike in requests for those types of services.
Mari Ryan: No doubt. It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing those spikes in those services, but it’s good to know that organizations are reacting and being able to work proactively to help address those kinds of situations. That’s great, thanks. In terms of looking to the future, I’m curious about what do you see in the coming year, and from EAPs and work-life programs in perspectives. What’s out there in the future for us?
Kathy Greer: That’s a good question. I’d say we’re going to see more about how EAPs respond to the natural disasters, and especially around terrorism. I think that’s going to be a trend of trying to see how we can be even more helpful to organizations. For instance, in a few places we’ve gone on site to hold a group discussion that facilitated into a discussion about what it’s like to live in these times. I think that may be something we do more in the future.
I think the biggest thing affecting EAPs right now is technology, like everybody else. Every day there is something more, and we’re working hard at keeping our high touch, because we do think being able to talk to someone is important, and not put any barriers. We look at technology, how can we have people enter the EAP easily, because if they are already distressed, you don’t want them to be having any trouble connecting, and we want to be able to engage people. We’ve done things like rolling out an app so that people can contact us through the app and use their mobile, as so many people do want to use their mobile device to access any work. We do a lot of telephonic counseling, because people wanted to go out to the parking lot at their lunch break and talk to a counselor.
We’re working on that and have our access set up so people can live chat or text with us, because of maybe the lack of closed offices anymore, or even cubes. We may be able to connect, and at least reach out and ask for a time while they are sitting at their desk. Making that available through technology is important.
One other thing technology has done for us is that it’s allowed us to create client portals, which has made a big difference. Everybody wants data now, and the EAP ends up with great data. It doesn’t identify who used the program, because everything we do is highly confidential, but it does give an HR professional the ability to see what is going on in a different way than they might be able to see from their department. We have some great data and we have comparison data, so they can look at how their data compares to other organizations in their industry or a total [indecipherable - 0:22:15.7] of business and that sits on a poll* now so the HR or the benefits person can go on there anytime and print out a report. Let’s say they’re going to meet with their CEO and they want to talk about stress. Having that EAP data with them can make it a much more meaningful conversation. So, that’s been something allowed through technology.
The other thing we keep on the portal is some of our promotional materials. Let’s say all of a sudden a meeting* someone’s flying through and they want to be sure they have some information about the EAP or work-life program, they can just print it out themselves, where in the past we might have been overnighting something to them, so it makes it easier for everyone.
Mari Ryan: It sounds like you’re doing a great job of incorporating those technologies into the services you’re providing your clients.
Kathy Greer: Those have helped, I think, all the way around, and we’re always watching it for what’s the next thing. There’s one other thing that we’ve been working on for the future, and that’s standard for the EAP industry. I was part of a group called the National Behavior Consortium, which is a [indecipherable - 0:23:39.9] organization for EAPs. I’m working on a committee that is creating some of the new standards, because some of the standards are, obviously, a bit outdated, and it’s changed new technology and other issues. I’m really excited about that, and I think we’ll have that completed in 2018.
Mari Ryan: Excellent, that’s really great. Well, I love hearing about these different types of services you are providing. I am a big user of the reports that you provide when I am working with a client. I always ask for those because it helps us see underlying information that we may not be able to get any other way, because you have access, in essence, to that confidential information, and often when we see stress in a workplace, which is just about everywhere, it can help us understand some of the sources of stress. I love getting all that data, and I’m glad to hear that the data is being looked at by clients for some of those reasons. Great stuff.
Kathy Greer: I think it can be powerful, too, when there’s other data available. For example, we have some clients who have asked a few work-life questions on their general questionnaire that they send out, and they have that data about, for example, what do people say about how many caregivers there are in the company who are doing that quietly on the side. Then they also use their health data, which is showing what percentage of the organization is using anti-depressants. Are there other stress-related or substance use issues going on in the organization? You combine that with some EAP data, which says what are people reaching out for, help with, and it’s a great snapshot.
Mari Ryan: That’s great, I love it. Kathy, I’m so delighted to have this conversation with you today, because I firmly believe that the services that your organization provides to employees is so fundamental and important to their wellbeing. I’m grateful for this opportunity to chat. If our audience wants to learn a little bit more about your services, or about EAPs in general, how can they find out more about your organization?
Kathy Greer: We’d love to hear from them. They can reach out to us through our website, which is kgreer.com, and they can also email for info at kgreer.com to find out more. We’d love to hear from people.
Mari Ryan: Great. Thanks so much for being here. Delighted, as always, to spend time with you.
Kathy Greer: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
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