Here's the deal: you can pay someone else to handle your employees' personal problems. Instead of confiding in you, your employee calls an independent counselor about any kind of problem -- from drug abuse to a bad case of the blues. The counselor makes a diagnosis and guides the caller to treatment.

This hands-off approach is known as an employee-assistance program (EAP), and it's been all the rage in large companies. Small companies are a different story. Only about 5% of companies with fewer than 100 employees use EAPs. The reason: it costs more for EAP companies to market to and service the little guys. So the annual cost is likely to be $35 to $40 for each employee family, while large companies pay considerably less.

And why bother? Small companies tend to act like close-knit extended families, anyway.

That's nice, say the EAP types, but coworkers can't possibly be as effective as a professional. The pitch for an EAP goes like this: a dollar invested in an EAP is supposed to save $2 to $3 in reduced medical claims, absenteeism, and other productivity zappers. "You tell me the cost of having 20% of your work force down for 20% of the day," asks Jesse Bernstein, president of Employee Assistance Associates, which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ron Parks, president of Millard Manufacturing, a $5-million metal fabricator in Omaha, counts his EAP as a double time savings. Not only are troubled employees more quickly freed to concentrate on their jobs, but their supervisors don't have to spend as much time trying -- usually ineffectively -- to solve a problem they don't really understand.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument in favor of EAPs are these depressing statistics: alcoholics are involved in 40% of industrial accidents; substance abusers' productivity is 25% to 33% lower than average; nonalcoholic members of an alcoholic's family use 10 times the number of sick days as do employees who don't have an alcoholic family member.

If you decide to purchase an EAP, look for the following traits:

* Independence. Beware of low-cost or no-cost EAPs that function as "feeders" for an alcoholic-treatment center, for example. Affiliations with hospitals or other institutions are OK if the EAP can prove it exercises independent judgment in referring clients.

* Financial stability. There are plenty of EAPs run by people without business experience. Ask to see the profit-and-loss statement. Request an explanation of management's business controls and plans for handling growth.

* Qualifications. Look for minimum qualifications of three to five years of post-master's-degree experience. Certified employee-assistance professionals (CEAPs) will have at least three years of experience. Counselors fielding calls must be highly trained to recognize a broad range of problems, particularly alcohol and drug dependency. "If they haven't had specialized experience," says Carl Tisone, chief executive officer of Personal Performance Consultants, in St. Louis, "clinicians can be fooled every time." -- Ellyn E. Spragins

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