Colorado's Unique Employee Counseling Program Yields Improved Mental Health, State Savings

Colorado's unique program, which offers free counseling to public workers, improves employees' mental health and yields state savings.
by Caroline Cournoyer | July 17, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

Thirty years ago, the Colorado State Employee Assistance Program (C-SEAP) was formed with the goal of helping employees -- and their family members -- struggling with both professional and personal problems. In addition to services like workplace mediation, crisis response and training, C-SEAP offers any interested employee six free counseling sessions per year for problems like workplace stress, depression, substance abuse and domestic violence.

The program, which advises more than 2,000 clients a year, has yielded improved mental health for employees and savings for the state, according to Sabrina D’Agosta, the director of policy and communications for Colorado’s Department of Personnel & Administration.

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Data collected on workers participating in the program during the past two years shows an increase in presenteeism as well as decreases in absenteeism and workplace distress. The nearly 50 percent reduction in absenteeism translates into approximately $4 million in savings for the state. Participating workers also reported decreased instances of depression and, for those seeking treatment for substance abuse, fewer drinks per week, for example.

I spoke with D’Agosta to learn more about the program and how the data is collected and used. Her responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do employees find out about the program? Are they targeted if they exhibit certain behaviors?

Our program is mostly self-referral, but we do have supervisor and employer referrals, and we encourage that. We train supervisors on how to pay attention to employee behavior and how they can refer their employees for additional help. When it comes to substance abuse, a supervisor can make counseling mandatory. But most of the time, customers come to us through self-referral.

How do you communicate with employees about the services available?

We work closely with HR directors in all departments to provide them with materials and handouts for new employees; we do supervisor training to make them aware that they can refer an employee to us; and when different departments or agencies are holding regular meetings, we ask for an opportunity to pitch our services. Our executive director does an amazing job talking about our services and what we do.

We’ve been really cognizant of making people aware that the services are confidential. It’s important for people to understand that, with the exception of the few cases in which counseling is mandatory, there’s no note made in their personnel file if they come to see us.

Are there any groups with which you have had more difficulty communicating?

Overall, middle-aged and older men aren’t likely to seek counseling services. Because a large percentage of some specific departments are that demographic (transportation and corrections, for example), we can target them for our services. We’ve rolled out a campaign called "Man Therapy" that’s part of a national campaign to make it more acceptable for our employees in this demographic to seek treatment for things like depression.

What do employees commonly use the service for?

With the exception of substance abuse, they’re here for general things like when an employee is having a hard time at home and needs additional help. They can come to us, have a confidential conversation, and we can tell them more about our services.

What do you do if an employee needs treatment beyond your capabilities?

We often refer people for things we don’t specialize in. We have a lot of great partners, and once you exhaust your six sessions, we can recommend you check into other services. That probably happens a fair amount with some of the longer-term and more serious issues.

Why do you collect data on the program?

I think all of us in government have faced a lot of difficult decisions because of the economy and budget cuts, and there was a continuing concern that the employee assistance program could be lost if we couldn’t demonstrate that there was an increase in productivity and a real dollar value benefit to the state to having it.

When someone calls to schedule a counseling session, we ask them things like whether they’re able to concentrate and give 100 percent to the work at hand during the day. About four to six weeks after the employee’s appointment, they’re asked these same questions again, allowing us to demonstrate with data the increase in worker productivity.

What has data shown so far?

I think the big finding that came out of this program is demonstrating the increase in worker productivity as a direct result of having an employee assistance program available. We all run into challenges in our lives -- sometimes it’s related to one's personal life, sometimes it’s things going on in the workplace. With the counseling, employees are able to productively get their problems taken care of.

Have you made any changes to the way you collect data to make it more useful?

We changed the timing of the post-screening. At some point, we had it set further out than it is now. If you do it too early, people haven’t been able to work through what they talked through with a counselor. If it’s too far out, there’s potential for new situations to have arisen.

Do you have a private partner for data collection or counseling? Or is it all done in-house?

It’s all internal now. Our program is pretty small; we have about ten people altogether in C-SEAP. The person who schedules the counseling appointments asks the pre-screening questions and also does the follow up post-screening.

Are other states collecting this data?

We don’t know of anywhere else where they’re doing this. We would highly recommend it because it’s been a wonderful way to demonstrate our value in terms of reinvesting in our workforce but also being able to demonstrate the value it has to the state to have people who aren’t absent as much.

Honestly, we’re surprised there aren’t more employee assistance programs working to demonstrate their value, especially when we’re going through tough budget times.