Małgorzata Kwiatkowska: Since 2013, ICAS Poland has been developing EAP (Employee Assistance Program) on the Polish market. Over these 10 years, we have helped hundreds of employees and their families overcome personal crises, and dozens of companies to enhance the resilience and effectiveness of their entire teams. We have also been involved in shaping the market for services focused on creating a safe and vital work environment. But how did it all begin?
Janusz Prendota, CEO of ICAS Poland: On my business journey, I met Johannes Edberg, a Swede who strongly believed in the power of EAP and had an extraordinary persuasive ability. After just a few conversations, I understood the power in strengthening organizations through supporting their employees. That’s how our program began to be created, the first task of which was to assist employees and their families with both personal and professional problems, thereby achieving better results and well-being at work. I started asking myself, as well as those managing organizations in Poland, whether it is possible, and if so, how to make employees, teams, and ultimately whole companies more effective, enabling them to carry out their tasks without excessive drain on their resources. What conditions need to be met in order for that to happen?
MK: The answer to this question was developed together with the offer of ICAS Poland. This is how the first important relationship was built, which to this day is the foundation of ICAS Poland. Johannes, how do you remember the beginnings of cooperation?
Johannes Edberg, Clinical Director of ICAS Poland: My wife Louise and I had extensive experience with EAP in Scandinavia. Janusz proved to be an excellent connector, creating the necessary conditions for us to start working in Poland. In such a delicate area as psychological support, understanding the economic and cultural realities of how organizations function in a particular country, as well as knowledge of the local language, is relevant. All of this affects the quality, proximity, and accessibility of the service. I believe that was the first crucial point determining the success of the program we proposed. We started by creating a small portfolio with a list of a few international companies employing 2,500 workers in Poland. In the first year, we may have received one phone call per week, no more. Janusz took on a very ambitious task. Slowly and systematically, he built a solid foundation to be able to inform companies about the benefits of EAP. We realized that we needed to work more online, so we decided to launch the first version of our website. Then, we signed our first contract in Poland. This is how things started to slowly gain momentum, growing over the years of work and building valuable support until today, when we have a wide portfolio of both international and Polish contracts.
JP: Gradually, we expanded the scope of issues in which employees could receive support. Depending on what disturbs an employee’s balance – and it could be very diverse things – competent specialists help to solve the problem. It could be a legal issue with an inheritance – then we need a lawyer. Or a financial problem with tax settlements, and we require a financial expert. Or an emotional problem, such as a divorce, and then we need the support of a psychotherapist. Finally, the issue could be work-related, such as changes in the organization, and in that case, a coach would be helpful. Later, we added group services to our offer, aimed at supporting entire teams: building resilience, preventing problems, and if prevention is not possible, better preparation for crises, that is, what may come.
MK: How was the market for employee support services developing in Poland during this time?
Kasia Kowalska, Development Director: Ten years ago, it basically didn’t exist. Managers were focused on creating more competitive products, better understanding of customers, process optimization, and financial efficiency. It was supposedly known that the company was made up of people, but hardly anyone saw the sources of success in taking care of their well-being. The trend was rather to exploit individuals for the benefit of the company. Psychology began to appear in business as a kind of trick to sell more and negotiate better. The understanding that mental well-being affects the quality of work, and people want to give more to companies that genuinely care for them, gradually emerged, supported by the entry of new generations into the labour market and accelerated by mass mental health challenges such as the pandemic or war. It also turned out that the trick is to plan how to take care of employees in an optimal and cost-effective way, hence the growing demand for professionals who are partners for companies. Our uniqueness lies in the fact that we have gone through this entire process with many companies – practically, not theoretically.
MK: ICAS Poland was the first company to build EAP foundations in Poland. But it wasn’t easy being a pioneer, was it?
Ewa Sołowiew, Key Account Director: That’s true. We received feedback from potential clients: “We may not be ready for this yet,” “The program seems useful, I would gladly use legal or tax advice, especially if it’s free, but mental health is still a taboo topic here.” People were ashamed to admit to themselves that they needed support to some extent, let alone to go beyond their own mind with this problem and raise the topic with a stranger. We encountered suspicion that employers would want to control all the information disclosed as part of the program. But over time, as we implemented the program in more and more organizations and expanded its audience, the offer we created was increasingly appreciated. Individuals seeking help, who experienced difficult life situations, illnesses, or nervous breakdown of a loved one, recognized the program’s real value and how much it was needed. We gained their trust, and the good reputation spread within teams.
JP: Above all, I remember disbelief, surprise, but also, most importantly, joy from a few potential customers that someone took up the topic and addressed what is important, though difficult to grasp. And it was on this joy that we built the company.
Marta Chromiec, Customer Service Director: Besides, the first breakthroughs were made during face-to-face meetings. It was touching that after the official part of our presentation of the offer, people approached us, thanking us for the opportunity to meet and sharing their private problems. This showed that even in a group where everyone is steadfast and can joke, there is a chance for a moment of reflection, and someone who is currently dealing with a real problem will think: “Maybe it’s worth asking for help? Maybe it’s worth taking the first step to feel better and seek a solution?” We also felt great openness among HR teams. They were largely built by people who were inspired by procedures in foreign branches, where the program had been functioning for years. Many HR representatives in Poland wondered how to convince employees who are closed to this type of support to use EAP services. We started building strategies together, spending hours discussing needs and challenges in organizations that our specialists could take care of. This gave us space to build relationships and trust.
MK: ICAS Poland has gone through a journey that includes not only successes but also events that presented enormous challenges.
ES: Absolutely, and there were plenty of them. Various crisis interventions, accidents in manufacturing companies, fatalities, but also tragedies affecting managers, team members, families, and witnesses of crisis events. It required conducting difficult discussions with the HR departments of our partner companies, developing a joint strategy on how to support families, teams, and ultimately organize comprehensive assistance. Dealing with such delicate situations involved handling intense emotions and often had no time boundaries – work took place on weekends, late evenings, and even at night. At those moments, I truly felt that this program was very much needed, and we, as a qualified team working together, were throwing a psychological lifeline to those in need, minimizing the crisis’s effects.
MCh: And today, we have a strong sense that what we do really matters and yields positive results. During crisis moments, our clients have understood that they have partners in us, and they reach out to psychologists – whether through the EAP hotline or their Account Manager. We have proven more than once that we help not only an employee who is facing a life crisis, but also their loved ones. When there is a need, we professionally support leaders, managers, and entire teams in difficult situations. When organizations trust us, it is the greatest reward for us. A reward we have earned, not given on credit.
MK: Do you feel that people are more ready to seek support now?
ES: Society has become more mature and aware of emotions – of their impact on our functioning and the importance of seeking professional help in this area. This can be seen primarily in the increase in the reported demand for psychological counselling and psychotherapeutic support. And ICAS is accompanying this change by creating increasingly accessible tools and solutions – the App, the Client Zone, and access to the group dimension of EAP support through articles, podcasts, webinars, and courses.
KK: The program is designed to lower the barriers to seeking help and provide users with maximum comfort. We eliminate inconveniences experienced by individuals using the public, and often private, healthcare systems – waiting for an appointment, difficulty in choosing the right specialist, the need to reveal one’s identity, and costs. Our psychologists are available around the clock, so help can be received in a matter of seconds, and no one has to endure a sleepless night to schedule an appointment. You can contact us by phone or in writing – this is important because sometimes openly talking about a problem is an insurmountable obstacle. If needed, we match the right specialist – we have a trusted group of child psychologists, family psychologists, addiction specialists, business psychologists, psychodietetics and others. We offer phone, video, or in-person sessions in several languages. We guarantee anonymity and confidentiality to everyone.
MK: What associations should people have when they hear about ICAS Poland for the first time?
JE: Respect, empathy, and professionalism!
JP: In my opinion, the strength of our brand lies, firstly, in the good mentors who built EAP globally. We learned from them. Secondly, the willingness to adapt to our local culture instead of the approach of “it worked in the States, so it must work here too.” And finally, going against the tide of proceduralization and defining everything in detail. Not just in business. We understood that our space is not about changing names. Calling a problem an opportunity or a crisis a transformation is just a change in packaging. Real work lies not in repackaging but in looking inside. What is the true cause of worry, trouble, or difficulty? Only attentive recognition and understanding of the crisis’s nature allow us to provide appropriate support. Together, we can find solutions. Some call us “shadow-watchers” or, in Indian terms, “those who are not afraid to look beyond the campfire.” Human thinking is structured, managerial thinking is even more structured, often leaving little room for the unknown, unexpected, or surprising. We are here to embrace. Perhaps the EAP Employee Assistance Program should be called the Embracing Program? Of course, the psychological dimension is one of the most surprising and difficult to modify and enclose within systems, strategies, and procedures. That is why providing psychological support to employees, their families, or entire teams is the dominant element of our work.
ES: I would also add experience and a broad team of experts who have a deep understanding of the EAP service and its development in the Polish market. After all, ICAS Poland is the result of many years of cooperation with HR departments, listening to the needs of companies, observing the changes they go through, and accompanying them in these processes.
MK: And that gives you the greatest satisfaction when you think about ICAS Poland today?
JE: I believe so. First of all, we have built a professional team with intelligent people who understand the essence of our service. Secondly, we receive more and more positive feedback from employees and companies. We strongly feel that we are making a difference. We bring real benefits to our clients, both individuals and entire organizations. Currently, a significant part of our service involves assisting clients in economic and legal turmoil, but the foundation of our work still remains the support of mental health. In many cases, we can provide significant real help before problems intensify. More and more employees open up and turn to us with complex, difficult emotional individual issues that require immediate response but also long-term treatment by specialists. It should be emphasized that if not addressed, these issues would undoubtedly result in significant costs for the companies as well. Let us emphasize that in every case, we strive to provide support, always remembering mutual respect. Of course, we cannot solve all problems, but we hope that contact with us can be an important step forward for every employee. We see that there is a tremendous need, and for many of our beneficiaries, a phone call or a message written on our chat is the first step when seeking help from a professional psychologist. We greatly value the manifestations of respect that appear in our relationships.
MCh: For me, as someone who manages a team of consultants, the biggest source of pride at this moment is that the individuals who collaborate with us on the EAP hotline are 100% engaged in their work and fully understand our mission. We are creating a professional team for whom providing help to another person becomes a significant aspect of the meaning of life.
MK: Here would you look for the greatest strength of the EAP program? What benefits does it bring? What do our partners gain from it?
JP: For me, EAP is the answer to excluding what cannot be excluded. It is a tool used to extend a kind of management control over the area of the unexpected, accidental and unpredictable. We restore the psychological dimension to both employees and, one could say, entire organizations. There are organizations or even social movements that have attempted to repair human nature by cutting here and there. But throughout history, it is clear that the consequences of such operations are lamentable because, as Freud said, “the repressed always returns.” Businesses understood this many years ago. I am pleased that in Poland, there is a process of deeper understanding as well. There are several areas in which the sense of fulfilling our potential creates difficult-to-determine and define, but still, a sense of deeper satisfaction, sometimes even happiness. EAP is a small step towards job and life satisfaction. Usually, this process takes a bit of time before an employee returns to productive equilibrium. Most often, it does not happen spontaneously but requires taking action on their own or seeking support. But we see this happening before our eyes.
JE: From my perspective, the biggest advantage of the EAP program is its democracy and respect for all involved employees. We never disclose the content of conversations. We all have smaller or larger problems in life. In such situations, EAP offers the possibility of getting help directly and quickly. For companies, our service means important protection and support for an already existing mental health program. If we can help even one employee avoid long-term sick leave, the company can save a lot of money and avoid many problems.
KK: We invest a lot of time and effort to understand what shapes the work environment and what is important for employees and leaders. I am happy when I hear from managers during meetings, “Yes, this is an important and current topic for us,” because then I know that what we deliver is not just another, repeatedly mocked “fruit Wednesdays” or a benefit that one should have, but a real response to needs. Currently, such a topic is the competence of leaders in dealing with the mental health of employees—many questions arise, such as finding a balance between empathy and excessive involvement in an employee’s problems, conducting discussions about mental health while respecting privacy and autonomy, and caring for an individual experiencing problems while considering the well-being of the entire team and your own. We work together with clients to find answers, so we also create a space where they can talk about their doubts and reflect together.
ES: This service is tailored to the needs of the times we live in and the challenges we face. And what does cooperation with us bring to the company? Above all, a relationship based on partnership, individual approach, support, sharing knowledge and proven practices, as well as the values that guide us in our work.
MCh: It is also worth emphasizing that we treat each case individually, analyzing it together and working on the best solution. The consultants working on our EAP hotline fully engage themselves in conversations with the beneficiaries of the program. We ensure that our employees providing support are in the best psychological condition so that they can offer appropriate help to others.
MK: And if we were to step into a small time machine now… How do you envision the company in another 10 years? What challenges does ICAS Poland face, and what possibilities do you see in the near future?
JE: That’s a very difficult question. In today’s world, things change very quickly. Our online capabilities are growing. More and more clients prefer to chat with us or have video calls. However, there are still many people who would prefer to be in the same room as the counsellor and benefit from the bond of trust that is being built in this way. Society and social structures are changing, and family structures are breaking apart. More and more companies will be forced to provide greater security for their employees. The biggest challenge will be maintaining our attitude of respect and empathy in the face of the enormous pace of change we currently observe in society.
KK: With many clients, we already have relationships that have lasted for several years, and I would like to see them continue in 10 years. We will be different, and they will be different, but if the relationships prove to be effective in the longer term, it will mean that we are able to read needs well and work together effectively. I hope that we will convince many more companies of the idea of supporting employees because in many places, it is not yet obvious. It has been proven long ago that taking care of employees reduces absenteeism, retention, and presenteeism, but in my opinion, the role of psychology goes beyond just bringing employees to a state where they are present and do their work. It is about unleashing their commitment and creative energy. I would like our actions to lead to that in the future because I believe that the one who has the emotions of employees on their side will have the strategic advantage.
JP: In my mind’s eye, I see it like this: ICAS Poland will be a model organization providing support, standing, as it has been so far, on solid financial foundations, working with the best specialists, and utilizing modern IT technologies to reduce the distance between the employee and the consultant. I agree that AI and the ease with which one can be deluded into thinking that a bot can replace a psychotherapist is a challenge. In my opinion, it won’t replace it. The relationship with a machine is not a real relationship. We cannot jointly look into the darkness and work together to find solutions. What I can get is a list of suggestions based on my answers, not based on a connection. A third entity does not emerge from the combination of the two. In conclusion, ICAS support will not cease to be human. The only sensible way is contact, conversation about our difficulties, understanding them, and seeking remedies, using emotional resources and the knowledge of specialists.
JE: I wholeheartedly agree with that. And the experiences of recent years have demonstrated how crucial the human factor, the element of genuine empathy, is. The dramatic war in Ukraine forced us to make an enormous effort. It was a challenge for all of us – individuals and companies – to confront feelings of despair and sadness. However, ICAS Poland rose to the challenge, and within just a few months, we managed to build a team that could provide assistance to employees and companies during these terrible moments, speaking Ukrainian/Russian. Many people have experienced deep traumas and require extensive help. This motivates us to act and work hard every day to restore balance.
MK: When it comes to balance, I wonder where you find it in your daily lives? Where do you find motivation to grow?
JP: In our relationships with our clients and employees. Sometimes, with some clients, nothing is born, just like in life. Other times, surprisingly, much is born. Sometimes, it doesn’t look like it at the beginning, but it becomes apparent after some time. Just like in the life of each of us. When I see “hard cutting surfaces,” I know that there won’t be any inspiration. I find increasing satisfaction in building our company. Understanding restores my balance. When I manage to understand something, it feels fuller somehow. Perhaps the right word here is “space.” Seeing phenomena in a multidimensional way. It’s no coincidence that we named our blog eapspace.icas.pl.
KK: I don’t want to sound like a workaholic, but at work. All of us in the company have the privilege of dealing with a subject that requires personal development. You can’t help others change while standing still and ignoring what each of us has in our “dead zone.” Many of us, including our team, go through various transformations. Of course, growth can be unpleasant, but curiosity and satisfaction from learning still push me forward.
JE: For me and my wife, primarily spending time with our grandchildren – it’s the best balance in our lives! And when the grandchildren have other activities, we can immerse ourselves in art and literature or seek contact with nature.
MK: I think, in conclusion, as the cherry on the jubilee cake, I will ask you for wishes. What would you wish for ICAS Poland?
JP: What do we wish for children entering perhaps the most challenging period in life? Maturity (laughter).
ES: And I would add that what you would wish from the heart to your best friend.