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We’re only human. We each have moments in our lives when life transitions, workplace conflicts, or anxieties about the future become overwhelming. For many research fellows, it may seem like a successful experiment or one more published paper will alleviate a stressful situation, and so we continue to “deal with it” and push forward. But when is it time to take a step back and talk to someone about your concerns? And who’s there to listen?

The NIH has several resources available to employees and fellows who need help dealing with a distressing circumstance, for a variety of issues. Two programs in particular stand out as a first line resource for fellows going through a tough time. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the Office of the Ombudsman provide confidential services for NIH employees and fellows who want to improve their overall well-being or remedy a conflict in the workplace, respectively.

For some, a fear of the unknown prevents them from approaching these resources. Below, you will find basic information about each office, how to know when you should seek support, whom to contact first, what to expect during a consultation, and how to encourage another fellow to utilize a program when needed.

Contact Information

The NIH Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Building 31, Room B2B57
Phone: 301-496-3164
E-mail a particular EAP Staff Member
EAP Website
EAP brochure (PDF)

The NIH Office of the Ombudsman

Center for Cooperative Resolution
Building 31, Room 2B63
Phone: 301-594-7231
Email Dr. Howard Gadlin: GadlinH@od.nih.gov
Ombudsman website
Ombudsman brochure (PDF)

The NIH Civil Program

Phone: 301-40C-IVIL (301-402-4845)
Civil Website
Civil brochure (PDF)

The EAP and the Office of the Ombudsman

While each program serves a specific function, it’s best to think of them as an integrated support team rather than separate, unaffiliated offices. In some cases, a fellow may want help or advice from multiple programs, as they each specialize in different aspects of conflict and stress management in the workplace.

The Office of the Ombudsman is a terrific resource for fellows who are experiencing a conflict in the lab. According to their website, the Office of the Ombudsman is a “neutral, independent, and confidential resource.” They offer several services, including consultation, coaching, mediation, facilitation, and training activities.

The purpose of the Office of the Ombudsman is to reduce disputes and enhance conflict management at the NIH. And they are well practiced. In 2009 and 2010, the office handled a combined total of 1,035 cases.1 If you are experiencing a conflict in lab, you are not alone. 

For some fellows, their need for an ombudsman is as simple as a sounding board. “Some people want help in thinking about strategies they might use to handle the situation, especially if they’re looking to handle it in a less adversarial way than they might left on their own,” said Dr. Howard Gadlin, director of the Office of the Ombudsman. “You know, sometimes someone realizes that they’re upset, and they don’t trust their own instincts in terms of the email they’re thinking of sending… Is it really going to be effective to call your boss a son of a…” You get the point.

In some cases, a lab conflict may escalate and become more serious. “There are situations where an EAP Consultant and someone from my office will work together,” Gadlin said. “We might help someone negotiate a complicated work situation while they’re also working with a consultant from EAP to handle the anxiety or stress they’re feeling around the situation.”

The purpose of the EAP is to help employees and fellows deal with personal and/or work-related issues that might adversely impact their job performance, health, and well-being in a confidential and neutral manner. All EAP staff are licensed mental health professionals who possess a unique administrative, organizational, and clinical skillset. They provide coping mechanisms for difficult times and counsel fellows to help make life transitions easier. “If anyone has any concerns—it doesn’t necessarily just have to be mental health concerns. Sometimes fellows who come from a foreign country or are brand new to NIH have anxieties associated with being in a new place,” said Eva Chen, Lead – Senior EAP consultant.

“Every one of us goes through different chapters of our lives, and we want to provide guidance and recommendations, and even some strategies, to help people get through different stages. Even something as happy as getting married or starting a new job can cause stress,” Chen said.

EAP uses a validated and scientific measurement tool called Workplace Outcome Suite (WOS), used by over 400 EAPs worldwide to help EAPs better evaluate the impact of EAP intervention on work performance and overall well-being. Between October 2011 and June 2014, data showed favorable results in the following (N=354):  1) A reduction in presenteeism (attending work while sick or beyond the amount needed for effective performance); 2) An increase in life satisfaction; and 3) A reduction in workplace distress.2 

The EAP hosts an array of services such as short-term counseling, consultation, coaching, supervisory consultation, crisis intervention, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and training. The types of concerns EAP addresses are the following: life transitions, work/life balance, working effectively, mental health, addictions, grief and loss, crisis intervention, supervisory resources, and health and wellness. A detailed breakdown for each service can be found on the EAP website.

When to seek support

It’s completely normal to need guidance with life’s many ups and downs. Consider this analogy: a PI is to your research career as the EAP and Ombudsman offices are to your health and well-being. Just as you wouldn’t wait until you have a major problem with your research project to approach your PI, you wouldn’t want to wait until you are in a crisis situation to approach one of these support offices.

“From my perspective, most situations, the earlier you try to address them, the more amenable to resolution they are,” Gadlin said. “If it’s something that’s upsetting enough that you’re thinking ‘I might need some help with this,’ that’s sufficient reason to call.”

According to both Chen and Gadlin, while it’s best to utilize these resources when a problem first arises, rather than in a state of crisis, anytime is a good time to seek support—even if it’s just to chat with a consultant about different ways to approach a problem. There is never an invalid reason to call upon the assistance of the EAP or Ombudsman consultants. If they feel another program will better suit your situation, they will help you find the support you need. 

Whom to contact first

“[Fellows] shouldn’t worry too much about whom to contact first…The programs are complementary, one to the other” Gadlin said. But, if you feel a bit intimidated about calling the right person, a good place to start for lab conflicts is the Office of the Ombudsman. For issues regarding stress management, health and well-being, coping with life transitions, and other mental health issues, the EAP is an excellent starting point. For both the Ombudsman Office and the EAP, a fellow can initiate contact by calling, emailing, or stopping by the office in person (please refer to the box to the right for contact information).

A third option, the NIH Civil Program, is aimed at preventing violence in the NIH workplace. If you are experiencing a concerning situation involving violence, need assistance with the aftermath of violence, or need help with your own behaviors, Civil coordinators can offer appropriate assistance. “The Civil Coordinator will assess the urgency of the situation and coordinate a response with the most appropriate NIH resources,” said Jessica Hawkins, Civil consultant. “However, [Civil] is not intended to be used as a substitute for calling 911 when an individual feels police or emergency help is needed.“

What to expect

In general, the sequence of events when seeking support from EAP or the Office of the Ombudsman is an initial phone call, assignment to a consultant, and then a one-on-one, in-person meeting (in building 31) to discuss your concerns. In the case of the EAP and Ombudsman office, all of the conversations and meetings are in complete confidence, unless there is an immediate threat to yourself or others. If this is the case, appropriate steps will be taken to ensure your and others’ safety.

In a meeting with an ombudsman, there is no commitment by coming to the meeting to follow up or pursue any course of action. In Dr. Gadlin’s experience, some people want to talk about a situation to learn about avenues that are available to them to address a problem. In those cases, learning about different options satisfies the person and no other actions on the part of the Ombudsman are taken. In other scenarios, follow-up sessions or conflict remediation may take place.

The EAP follows a six-session model for short-term counseling. After a fellow contacts the EAP office, he or she will be assigned to an EAP consultant for an initial in-person consultation, usually within three business days, after a brief phone triage. In the first session, the EAP consultant carefully assesses the situation and together with the fellow develops a plan (each session is usually about an hour long). If a fellow needs long-term support, the EAP consultant would provide referral to the appropriate community resources. 

How to help someone else

According to Chen, if you know someone at the NIH who is struggling with stress or a life transition, empathize with this person and defer to the EAP Consultants for support. In a private space, confide that you notice they have been under a lot of stress based on their recent behaviors. Explain that you know of the NIH EAP, a service to help with things like life transitions or work/life balance. Offer to make a phone call together to the EAP consultants; even find a quiet room to put your phone on speaker, introduce yourself, and then let the EAP consultant know that you have a friend who might benefit from their program. Sometimes it helps to have a lab mate get the ball rolling to eliminate the fear or stigma associated with seeking help. Hearing a friendly voice on the end of the line also may ease anxiety.

If you or someone you know needs a little extra assistance, the EAP and the Office of the Ombudsman are valuable resources for all NIH employees and fellows. While they are only two of many support programs at the NIH, they are an excellent starting point for making your time here happy, healthy, and productive.

References

  1. Center for Cooperative Resolution Biennial Report 2010. NIH Office of the Ombudsman.
  2. Workplace Outcome Suite – Summary of Cumulative Results 2014. NIH Employee Assistance Program.