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Member-Assistance Program Earns Its Wings

The road to the reinvented workplace does notrun smooth — for it’s fraught with humanity.

Employee stress and personal crises will alwaysbe with us. And in an accelerating, sometimes impersonal corporate environment,it’s important for employees to know there’s always someone they can turn towith personal issues.

One powerful way to help is a corollary to anemployee assistance program (EAP) in which volunteer employees receive specialtraining on how to counsel their peers and refer them to appropriate help, ifnecessary.

Such a “peer-assistance” program hasworked wonders at the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). The AFA is thelargest union of flight attendants in the world, representing 26 airlines andover 47,000 flight attendants. Called a member-assistance program (MAP) underthe union’s rubric, the program has incorporated anemployees-helping-other-employees philosophy into the organization’s EAP sinceits inception in 1980. Currently there are more than 170 peer counselors in theUnited States and overseas.

William Sonnenstuhl, an assistant professor atCornell University and a leading expert on MAPs, calls the AFA’s program”the Cadillac of MAPs,” because it has successfully integrated avariety of services for employees ranging from counseling for marital problemsand employee conflicts into its original substance-abuse intervention function.

To learn how a peer assistance program canenhance EAP services, Workforce talked to Heather Healy, EAP director for theAssociation of Flight Attendants.

How does a MAP differ from a traditional EAP?

A MAP by definition is a union-sponsoredpeer-assistance program that is traditionally a voluntary peer support andreferral program.

MAP programs differ from traditional EAPs in thesense that EAP assistance generally is delivered by paid professionals, whetherit’s an employee of the organization or a vendor. On the other hand, we’repeers and volunteers. The mission is a bit different, though we accomplish thesame thing.

From a management-sponsored EAP, the goal isrisk management, human resource management, legislative compliance, and controlof costs associated with mental health and substance abuse programs. Also, itsoriginal intent was to help with productivity and attendance.

A peer-assistance program exists because themission of the union is to support the health and safety of its membership. It’snot focused on productivity per se, but on the health of its members and theimprovement of work conditions.

What special needs in your organizationindicated that a MAP might be helpful?

In the workplace, a typical management EAP isbased on the premise that supervisors are going to monitor employee workperformance and attendance, and then refer them when there’s a problem. Butfor flight attendants, there’s no supervision on a daily basis. So when youhave a 24-hour workforce that’s relatively unsupervised, and you’re lookingfor early intervention and prevention, a MAP’s an ideal source.

Also, most EAP counselors are trained tounderstand workplace issues and short-term issues. But if you have a workforcethat’s unusual both in terms of how they do their work and the type of workthey do, a peer-assistance program can bring to light a clearer understanding ofthe employees’ problems.

For example, I might send a flight attendant tosee a general EAP counselor, and the counselor may say, “You’redepressed, I think you ought to take an anti-anxiety medication.” Does thattherapist really recognize that the workforce is safety-sensitive? Theseemployees get drug tested, and it might have implications on how they do theirjob.

Now, if this employee were to use the MAPprogram, the peer counselor would make sure that whoever begins working withthis person can manage the high level of flexibility this person needs in termsof developing a care plan. In this industry, things don’t work the way they doin the normal 9-to-5 world. We have different constraints that traditionalservices don’t fit very well.

Can you illustrate how a MAP can supplement amanagement-sponsored EAP?

Our program is union-sponsored, but there’scooperation with management in terms of referrals. Ten percent of our referralsin the last 10 years have come from supervisors within the workplace. At some ofthe airlines in which we represent the flight attendants, we do jointorientations on the EAP and MAP programs. It offers two streams of assistance.

Why is it desirable to have a MAP in tandem withan EAP?

Under a traditional, management-sponsoredprogram, employees are referred to the EAP by supervisors when there’sdeteriorated job performance or attendance.

With a peer program, you don’t have to waituntil it impacts job performance or attendance. Flight attendants spend aninordinate amount of time together with one crew. Not only do they worktogether, but they socialize together, too. So they have the opportunity tolisten when someone’s struggling with an issue.

Also, individuals who are concerned aboutconfidentiality may not be willing to use a management-sponsored EAP. Themember-assisted program offers employees the freedom to disclose personalproblems, knowing that it’s not going to get to the employer.

With what kinds of problems do peer counselorsdeal with?

There are three basic functions of the peers.The first is peer support and referral. That means if someone has a problem –whether it’s a personal problem or work related — they can call and a peerwill help. They’ll talk about the problem, develop an action plan, and linkthe employee to a resource that will provide ongoing support as needed.

Besides the individual support, there’s thecritical response program, which interfaces with the management EAP when there’sa critical aviation incident. For example, if an attendant performs CPR on ababy and the baby dies, that attendant has a peer available to help her throughher emotions. If a plane goes down and people are killed, our peers facilitateonsite response, providing crisis-debriefing services and trauma response.

The third product is called professionalstandards. If someone in the union has a conflict with a co-worker, he or shecan work with a peer counselor to solve workplace conflicts, so they don’thave to bring them to management. The three functions have expandedsignificantly from the original grant to focus on substance abuse.

What kinds of skills do the peer counselorsneed?

Peer counselors receive basic training in rolesand responsibilities, issues of confidentiality, communication skills,assessment/intervention skills, defining and developing treatment resources,networking with the company EAP, program promotion, crisis intervention,critical incident response, conflict resolution — so it’s a full-blushprogram. Then there are advanced training sessions and continuing educationthrough literature and training at different local levels. All basic andadvanced training is required.

Some peer counselors were users of the servicethemselves, and some have master’s degrees in counseling professions. Othershave always been in a helping-type profession, and they translate theirexperience to what’s happening here.

Who does the training?

All MAP training was designed by licensedmental-health practitioners. For critical incidents, we use a certified programby the International Critical Incident and Stress Foundation.

Is there legal liability for advice the peercounselors may give?

Peer counselors can do assessment and referral,but they legally can’t provide a diagnosis and can’t provide counselingservices, although they’re supervised by licensed clinicians. There aren’tthe same liabilities you’d have for licensed professionals regulated by thestate.

We do have a procedure in place for cases wherethere’s potential liability. These cases go through the international AFAemployee-assistance association.

Most of the liability for peers falls aroundissues of confidentiality. We make sure everyone maintains confidentiality andadheres to federal and state confidentiality guidelines. If a complex situationcomes up, peers call us and we refer employees to counseling programs. We’vehad no liability action at all.

Since this is a volunteer position, whatmotivates the peer counselors to give so much of their time?

Service. We actually conducted a survey of whypeople devote such a significant amount of time and energy to peer counseling.Most of them said they volunteer because they feel they have something to give,and want to provide their services to others.

We did another survey of four counseling teams(about 12 people) and tracked how much work they did in one quarter. [Thisgroup] put in 1,250 hours of service. Peer counselors in our program serve foran average of nearly six years.

What’s the response rate like?

We started out with a few airlines, and now wehave 26. Over the last 10 years, we’ve serviced 13,000 flight attendants, justin terms of support and referral. That doesn’t even include thecritical-incident component, which is a tremendous amount of assistance.

And we know that 52 percent of the people whocome to our program are self-referred, and 37 percent come based on a co-worker’ssuggestion. That means MAPs work both for the individual who needs the help, aswell as the other members who recognize when their friends may benefit from theservices.

Workforce,January 2000, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 76-77Subscribenow!