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McGill sociology professor Michael Smith admits to being a great big crabby-pants who would never reach out for help. What's more, he's charmingly agreeable (in a grouchy sort of way) to being paraded as a bad example.
"Many people aren't cantankerous like me," says Smith. "I think there are people who like to ask for help, people who wrestle with problems for some time."
Smith is right - university staff aren't all following in his grumpy footsteps. The newly rejigged Employee Assistance Program, provided by MRB and Associates since June 1, is a free service that allows any employee (full- or part-time, as well as their children or their spouses, including same-sex partners) to give a confidential call to an outside company and hook up with the sympathetic ear of a professional counsellor. Social workers and psychologists are among the employees of MRB, and users have access to lawyers and accountants for consultation. Since the announcement at the beginning of the summer, usage has gone up - perhaps simply because publicity reminds everyone that the EAP program exists.
"In society, everything is faster these days," says Robert Savoie, executive director of Human Resources. "You can see it today with young couples; each has their own career. Then there's the family.... Since the early 1990s, the demands of work have increased. It presents more of a challenge."
Sometimes you're walking on eggshells at home because you can't figure out how to communicate with that strange creature called a teenager. Maybe that student in the third row is pushing your buttons and an outsider could help figure out why.
A supervisor who sees that an employee is troubled can get advice. "Managers can call and ask, what can I do?" encourages Kathleen Tobin, the manager of benefits. In the event of a trauma in the department, something can be arranged for groups of colleagues.
McGill is mirroring a trend seen in society at large, with depression becoming a major health concern. Heart and arthritis medications top the list of prescriptions paid for by the university's drug plan - but not for much longer. "Drugs related to mental health are about to become our largest therapeutic class," says Savoie.
EAP is an investment, he adds. "It can easily prevent absenteeism. If I have a personal problem, and I can deal with it with someone who's a professional, I'm making sure this problem won't get out of hand."
EAP first started in 1988. The in-house program was coordinated by the School of Social Work, which hired the counsellors. But just over a year ago, the Royal Victoria Hospital (and its 10,000 employees), merging into the new McGill University Health Centre network, pulled out of the joint venture. As well, the School of Social Work decided to get out of the business.
"We said we need some coverage for the year," says Savoie. "Which they did for us. And then we thought, here's an opportunity to review the whole program - it had not been reviewed since its inception."
A three-month process began in March, involving Human Resources and reps from campus unions and associations. Staff wanted expanded services - a 24-hour emergency phone line, and the possibility of appointments downtown, on the West Island and elsewhere.
EAP programs are big business these days, and six companies tendered bids. Cost was taken into account, as well as references from other companies and of course, the flexibility and type of services offered. The 15-year-old Montreal-based MRB and Associates ended up the unanimous choice of the committee.
Counselling is available after hours, and those calling should get an appointment within 48 hours, in English or French, with a counsellor of either gender available. An emergency will get immediate attention. The program's intended for short-term concerns - each employee gets up to six hours of counselling per problem, per year.
The MRB contract was signed for $125,000, although that's based on an estimate of usage. Already, the numbers are up.
"We announced it in May, and it started being used immediately in June," says Savoie. Ad-ministrators are confident the service is up to snuff but are open to feedback from staff.
It's too soon for specific statistics to be available, adds Savoie, and the university has nothing to do with the service itself - no access to names or health, and no involvement in deciding who gets what kind of aid, beyond the initial guarantee of help. If an MRB employee thinks a longer-term psychologist is needed, they'll advise the McGill staffer. The university's health plan, which covers many forms of therapy, takes over -check their brochure for details.
MRB and Associates' own numbers (taken from its 50-odd corporate clients) break down the kind of help sought: Family or social problems, 40%; personal problems, 35%; addiction problems, 10%; career-related issues, 5%.
Contact MRB and Associates at 514-744-6763.