Working Solutions to Stress

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

July 17, 2000 -- Your spouse just walked out. You can't stop drinking. Your son committed suicide. Where do you turn? More and more people struggling with such crises are going to their employers -- not just for sympathy, but for professional advice.

Fifty-six percent of companies with more than 100 employees now offer in-house counseling and referral programs, according to a 1998 Business Work-Life Study, sponsored by the Families and Work Institute in New York.

"Just as industry takes care of its equipment -- from computers to pumps to pipelines -- it has an obligation to take care of its people," says Drew Cannon, MSW, an employee assistance counselor at Chevron Chemical in Houston. "I don't mean just for the eight hours that they're on the job," he says. "I mean 24 hours a day."

Does than mean the company will be psychoanalyzing you or peering into your private life?

"Absolutely not. We don't do therapy," says Cannon. "We refer people out to confidential treatment programs. We don't talk to supervisors about their employees or tell them who's in counseling. We just make sure that people get the help they need. "

Says Chevron manager D'Ann Whitehead, "People want and need this kind of help. Our marital and family counseling program has increased since 1997 and now accounts for 43% of our referrals."

Do these benefits translate into more committed workers? Absolutely, says Whitehead. Consider the case of Nancy M., 57, a marketing specialist who discovered that her 33-year-old son had started taking drugs. "My son lived 60 miles away, and I had no idea how to deal with the situation. Cannon referred me to a well-balanced treatment program, and my son got straightened out.

"I was just beginning to get my sense of balance back, when my husband had a major heart attack and my mother had a stroke. Chevron held a special seminar on how to cope with aging parents. Then Cannon got me into counseling. I'm grateful to the company, and so I'm going to do the best job for them I can."

Cannon wears a pager, and he's available around the clock. Here's a typical day of work. The names of employees have been changed to protect their privacy.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, Bob H., a plant supervisor, calls to say that his wife has just walked out on the family. "His life is in tatters, and there's no way he can come to work for at least a week," Cannon says. "So we need to get him into counseling and help him find someone to care for his young children."

By 10 a.m. Cannon is talking to Hal G., an engineer, who wants help with a drinking problem. Says Cannon, "He doesn't know how to tell his family how bad it's been." Cannon gets Hal into a residential program and tells Hal's wife about a support group that can help the family in the weeks ahead.

It's noon, and Gale L., a marketing manager, stops by to tell Cannon she's increasingly afraid of her teenage son. "He's been smoking dope and acting like a terrorist, holding the family hostage with his threats of violence," Cannon explains. "We have a lot of families who gointo counseling because they don't know what to do with angry kids." In Gale L.'s case, Cannon started exploring the possibility of getting her son into a residential treatment program. If that failed, he says, he would look into individual counseling.

From noon to 5 p.m., Cannon will be in training sessions for managers, helping them recognize signs of stress, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Between these sessions, he'll stop in on a branch office and walk the halls, introducing himself to new employees and checking up on people he's helped in the past.

And then he'll go home with his beeper on -- ready to deal with any new emergencies.

Valerie Andrews has written for Vogue, Esquire, People, Intuition, and HealthScout. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.