Mental health just might be one of the most important issues that human resources managers are dealing with as concern over the economy percolates through all levels of every organization. The challenges people are facing go beyond their own immediate circumstance and may not have anything to do with a negative experience like a layoff. For instance, as Wells Fargo starts working through the process of merging the operations of its Wachovia acquisition, they have started shuffling the leadership deck to move Wells managers into newly-created management positions. While that’s good for the organization, and for those getting promotion opportunities, any change, positive or otherwise, can be upsetting, even for those who are staying in place, said Marilyn Sparks, a human resource professional with the organization. “We have to help people focus on their priorities and not get distracted by the changes and also be kind and compassionate,” she added. And while the bank has not gone through any major downsizing events, Sparks said they are dealing with the fallout of employees whose spouses have lost their jobs. “Then there’s a real pressure for the employed spouse to do their absolute best in order to maintain what they’ve got. But it’s hard to do your job and maintain focus when your spouse is in distress and it’s hard for families to understand why the working person is putting so much emphasis on work.” With all the turmoil, many Wells Fargo employees have turned to the organization’s employee assistance program, or EAP. (Actually Wells calls it an EAC with the “C” standing for consulting, but the term used throughout the industry is EAP.) While the majority of EAPs are externally-run, Wells Fargo has an internal program that it says is the largest of its kind in the country. “We have 45 full-time staff that work on board which is a significant allocation for an internal program,” said Tony Devencenzi, director of the Los Angeles EAC program. “That speaks to one of the core values that we have here: that our people are a competitive advantage for Wells Fargo and that’s why the company is willing to resource the service. Taking care of our employees is crucial to retention, to productivity, and to ultimately serving the customer.” But a business doesn’t have to be the size of a national bank to provide an EAP benefit to their employees. “I have found that in talking even to smaller employers they’re more receptive now to making that kind of resource available to all their employees,” said Linda Miller Savitt, partner at Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, a labor and employment law firm in Universal City. That receptivity is trickling down from upper management to the users of EAPs themselves, said Danone Simpson whose insurance firm offers benefits consulting to its clients. “We get a lot less snickers when we present these programs now,” she said. “Even if the employees themselves aren’t being impacted at work, they may have loved ones at home who have been laid off or are worried about the future.” Simpson said that virtually every client of her firm has downsized. “Unfortunately once the person gets terminated the EAP doesn’t carry on but the employees left behind are equally as stressed as the ones who have been let go, because payrolls are being cut and friends and peers and co-workers are being lost.” Dealing with customers Businesses are also dealing with a higher level of anxiety in their customers. “We’re noticing that as our customers come in, they’re anxious and worried and scared and the reality is our team members absorb that and they’re wanting to be helpful,” said Devencenzi. That’s why they are focusing their employee consultants’ attention on change management, stress management and resiliency. “We’re helping our employees recognize the signs of stress and giving them tools and techniques to help calm the nerves of our customers,” he said. Distress and anxiety has also led companies to think more about suicide prevention, calling on specialty organizations like the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles to teach managers and employees how to recognize when someone is merely agitated or on the verge of doing harm to themselves. “We’ve always done these programs for mental health centers, high schools, universities,” said Lyn Morris, a spokesperson for the organization, “but we are now starting to do more with businesses including hospitals, doctor’s offices, banks and mortgage institutions where people are feeling highly distressed.” She said that it’s important for businesses not to ignore the issue for fear that they may create more stress in their employees. It’s particularly important for employees to know about resources like the Didi Hirsch Suicide crisis telephone line, said Morris, so they feel they can actually do something to help. “People don’t know how to deal with it so they dismiss it,” she said. “I’ve heard from so many people who’ve lost friends or family say, ‘I didn’t really think they were going to kill themselves. They said they wanted to die, but I didn’t think they were going to do it.’ But remember that it’s not the loss of a job that causes someone to contemplate suicide, Morris added. “What causes people to become suicidal is an untreated depression or underlying mental illness. Depression makes a person not think clearly and makes them incapable of using all the coping skills they might normally have.” Helping employees through these tough times is all about being proactive, our experts all agreed. It’s important for employers to talk to their staff about whatever mental health resources are offered, whether it’s an EAP or some other mental health coverage provided by the medical plan, or just the phone number to a crisis hotline. “Helping them think about and understand their options, or at least broaching the subject with them, is the first step,” said attorney Savitt.