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In Conversation with Ellen Clark

by Oct. 3, 2011, 8:04 AM

Vanderbilt’s EAP helps employees find balance in their work and lives

Ellen Clark (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

Ellen Clark’s first day on the job at Vanderbilt is stamped on her memory. It’s likely stamped on your memory, too.

Clark, a licensed clinical social worker, had an official start date of Sept. 17, 2001. But when terrorists attacked the nation on Sept. 11, Vanderbilt’s Employee Assistance Program – anticipating staff and faculty would be anxious and grieving – called her to campus that day.

Over the past decade, Clark, a family therapist by training with extensive experience in EAP work, has counseled hundreds of employees on issues ranging from personal relationships, grief and parenting to depression, anxiety and challenges in the workplace. She is one of seven therapists plus support staff at Vanderbilt’s Work/Life Connections-EAP office, whose services are often the best first step for employees seeking help for problems impacting their quality of life or ability to function optimally on the job.

“The beauty of our service,” Clark said, “is that it is free, confidential and accessible.”

A call to the EAP office gets you in to see a counselor within 24 to 48 hours. “If we can, we’ll get you in the same day,” Clark said. The counselor does an assessment to determine if the presenting problem can be addressed in the short term within the scope of EAP services, or has a long-term focus and should be referred to a resource in the community. No matter the course of action, Clark stays in touch with her clients to ensure their needs are met.

Vanderbilt’s highly diverse work population means EAP counselors support employees from all walks of life, including a large international staff.

“I am sensitive to how one’s cultural experience impacts how current situations and experiences are viewed,” Clark said. “To be heard and understood by someone who is present and actively listening can be the first step toward healing and relieving some of the burdens people bring to counseling.

“I’m always humbled and inspired by people who are courageous enough to come to a stranger and share their deepest thoughts, feelings and pain,” she said.

Clark said her office has seen a significant increase in the number of employees struggling financially in recent years. “The challenges in the economy have certainly taken a toll,” she said.

For many single-parent families or families with an unemployed spouse, making ends meet is a daily challenge. “It just takes a car breaking down or a high energy bill to push a family to the financial edge,” she said. “We help people manage their emotional stress and direct them to resources that can help.”

Within Work/Life Connections-EAP are specialized programs to meet the needs of faculty, physicians and nurses. The unique demands of each of these professions can create challenging life conditions. “Our services provide support for professionals dealing with high levels of stress, depression, addiction or any other emotional or relationship difficulty,” Clark said. “Thousands of Vanderbilt professionals have accessed these services since their inception.”

Given the nature of her work, how does Clark prevent herself from absorbing the pain and stress brought into her office each day? In addition to opportunities among the EAP staff to “support each other and download,” Clark said the key is “balance.”

“I need to be a good role model for what I often encourage my clients to do: manage stress through good self-care practices such as eating right, daily exercise and getting enough sleep,” she said.

Clark also emphasized the need for people to have a strong social network and activities outside of work that fulfill them. “I take advantage of working at such a dynamic place of employment. Vanderbilt brings art, music, authors and researchers from all over the world for lectures and performances. I am always enriched when I fit these experiences and opportunities into my schedule.”

Clark stressed the importance of taking one’s vacation time to renew and refresh. “My husband and I love to travel, and we make staying fit a priority so we can hike and ride horses on vacations.” A self-described “environmentalist and tree-hugger,” she plans to plant trees in her neighborhood this fall.

Clark said her work often entails helping people get their “real” self back from the burdens of stress, depression, addiction or painful relationship patterns.

“Your real self can embrace the joys of living,” she said, “and that is a beautiful thing to witness.”