Market good for psychologists as EAP providers

By David R. Starr, Ph.D.
February 1, 2011 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

For better or worse, professional psychology has left the building for health care, evidence-based treatments and practicing at the top of our licenses. Economically, life is getting tougher and tougher for independent practitioner psychologists.

Psychology as health care has brought a greater emphasis on diagnosis. Some would insist that a diagnosed mental illness is the only reason to utilize the professional psychologist’s skills.

Medical necessity has bred a vortex of thinking by psychologists to focus on professional activities that will be paid for by some health insurance corporation. Some of us, however, have been trained and have practiced in the assumption that psychological services are useful for a variety of people who don’t happen to be mentally ill. Some people will benefit from help with ordinary problems of living.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) developed in this country in the 1960s and 1970s principally to address problems in the workplace with substance abuse.

As time went on industries learned that employees functioned better at work when they weren’t distracted by personal problems. Since inception, EAPs have grown to address a variety of issues for employees and dependents beyond the original focus on alcohol and drugs.

Interpersonal problems, stress and family problems now are the most frequently documented reasons for seeking EAP services. Psychologists are in a unique position by education and experience to help people with these common life difficulties.

Local EAP agreements can be negotiated with small and medium sized companies, and most human resource staffers understand the benefit. Typically, companies will pay the EAP provider a retainer based on number of employees and projected utilization rate. Actual services can be negotiated and created in the context of the company’s specific need and the psychologist’s skill set.

Psychologists interested in developing this avenue of practice will typically have the social skills to interact with a variety of people in a variety of settings. Inasmuch as the heart of the EAP service itself is vested in the interpersonal relationship between the psychologist and the EAP recipient, it is advised that contracts with small and medium sized companies be developed the same way.

Prospective EAP psychologists might nurture these relationships with contacts they can make in the community. Service groups, churches, youth sports programs, the local Chamber of Commerce, music circles, film and book clubs come to mind. Service fairs and county fairs will make booths available to psychologists seeking this kind of visibility. Psychologists who are active in their communities will come to know the local players in industry and commerce.

Then discussions about the value of EAPs in general and the psychologist’s skills in particular can develop from natural relationships.

Psychologists interested in doing EAP work are urged to do their homework regarding the nature and practices of the industry or company they are courting for a contract. Psychologists haven’t always been psychologists. Utilize knowledge of targeted industries from personal experience.

In my case the company I serve is a wood products industry. Knowledge I have about the industry from my own work in the woods and sawmills has been very helpful. I’m familiar with the culture of the industry. Knowing what it feels like to pull boards off a chain all night long gives credibility to claims I might make about the value of the EAP service to recipients and human resource staffers alike.

Flexibility in professional practice is often renewing for the psychologist. Broadening the referral base could be an economic boost as well.


David R. Starr, Ph.D., received his doctoral degree from the University of Idaho in 1980. He practices in Idaho and Oregon focus on assessment, consultation and employee assistance programming. His free time is spent in the Idaho back country. His e-mail address is:

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