More small companies are using employee assistance programs (EAPs), administered by outside services, to help employees cope with stress, mental illness, marital problems, financial entanglements, and more. About 10% of small companies now offer this relatively cheap benefit.

At Hemmings Motor News, a $19-million publisher in Bennington, Vt., the selection of an EAP wasn't merely a matter of following fashion. The company's health team wanted to be sure an EAP was the most economical way to ensure employees' well-being.

The team's eight or so members weren't fluent in EAP-speak, so they met with a consultant (cost: $75) to learn how an EAP might work at Hemmings. Team reps then educated their peers at a companywide meeting and followed up with a questionnaire to determine interest. After checking references, the team targeted four certified providers. Each candidate withstood a two-hour interview process and submitted a proposal detailing how its services could enhance employees' well-being.

Here's how you can gauge the suitability of an EAP:

Value-added services. Training programs can vary widely. The best prepare managers to confront troubled employees, to help develop a wellness policy, and to sponsor seminars on health issues.

Professional credentials. Hemmings found an affiliate of a national organization. The provider has on staff two licensed, certified social workers (an expert in family matters and an alcohol counselor) and a licensed clinical psychologist. Strong ties to local health groups and national self-help organizations are important, too.

Convenience. Hemmings's EAP provider is just a five-minute drive away from the company, and employees can visit before, during, or after work -- one reason 44% of employees have used it. The provider also guarantees a response within 24 hours and gives a toll-free number.

Communication. Most providers issue monthly updates. But they should also record their own effectiveness in helping you reach agreed-upon productivity goals or implement safety programs. Some providers also supply payroll stuffers on subjects like practical parenting.

Cost. Avoid paying extra for materials and administration -- those should be covered in the base fee. EAPs generally deliver savings over time, not overnight. Although it's too early to quantify the benefits of Hemmings's EAP, other companies have seen a return of fivefold or better. -- Karen E. Carney

For more information on employee-assistance programs, ask the Corporation Against Drug Abuse (800-678-0654) for its free Drug-Free Workplace and Employee Assistance Services package. Inside is a 20-page booklet titled Twenty Questions and Answers About EAPs .

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