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Three Decades of Leadership and Service

Three Decades of Leadership and Service

The USC Center for Work & Family Life is celebrating 30 years of service as the university’s employee assistance program and one-stop destination for faculty, staff and their dependents to obtain free, confidential counseling and resources on a wide range of personal and work-related concerns.

With the launch of this first-of-its-kind center, USC pioneered the concept of an employee assistance program in a university setting.

Founded in 1980 as the Staff/Faculty Counseling and Consultation Center, the name changed to the Center for Work & Family Life in 2006 to better reflect the broad scope of services provided and to acknowledge the center’s role as a key component of the provost’s university-wide Family Friendly Initiative.

“The center is an investment in the human infrastructure of the university,” said USC President-elect C. L. Max Nikias. “USC remains committed to fostering the health and well-being of our faculty and staff.”

While some institutions have moved to outsource or downsize their employee assistance programs, the Center for Work & Family Life has grown dramatically in the range of services provided and in the number of clients assisted. Use of services in 2009 alone increased 32 percent over the average annual usage throughout the previous decade. The center has sustained this recent growth without either increasing staff or putting those in need of services on a wait list.

“When people seek assistance for a personal or work-related issue, you have to respond quickly,” said John Gaspari, executive director of the center. “It takes enormous courage to reach out for help, so we don’t want people to have to wait to be seen.”

The Center for Work & Family Life, which is affiliated with the USC School of Social Work, takes a proactive approach to anticipating both individual and university needs. For example, Gaspari initiated a Disaster Mental Health Response Team that is now integrated with the university’s Disaster Medical Response Team to assure USC’s overall emergency preparedness. “For every physical injury, there may be five or six psychological ones,” he noted.

To help the USC community manage ongoing work/life concerns, the center launched the Healthy Trojans Web site (, which features USC wellness resources across many dimensions — physical, emotional, intellectual and social. The center also recently opened new stress-reduction laboratories on the University Park and Health Sciences campuses.

“We can’t eliminate stress from people’s lives or the workplace,” Gaspari said, “but we can help a person withstand the detrimental effects of stress and to develop greater resilience and adaptability.”

At the new labs, customized assessments, personalized stress management planning and stress-reduction tools are available to all faculty and staff.

One such tool is a biofeedback monitor that measures heart-rate variability and displays the results in real time, allowing users to visualize the impact of stressful thoughts on their heart. Participants are taught simple techniques to focus their breathing and mind on positive emotions that normalize heart-rate variability. They are also taught how to access this state of “positive coherence” outside of the stress lab.

“The Center for Work & Family Life is an extraordinary resource for our faculty and staff,” said Janis McEldowney, associate senior vice president for administrative operations. “As an employer, it is important we nurture and, when necessary, restore what makes us strong, resilient and successful – our people. The center’s programs and services not only provide a convenient opportunity for faculty and staff to get help dealing with issues that may undermine their personal health and well-being, but they also provide a mechanism for helping managers find solutions to some of the most difficult and complex interpersonal dynamics that threaten productivity and harmony in the workplace. It is wonderful to have that sort of support and guidance readily available and provided free of charge to our employees. It’s another example of how the Trojan Family is a genuinely supportive community and why USC is a great place to work.”

Because of its organizational longevity, the Center for Work & Family Life has provided support for many USC faculty and staff at various stages of their careers.

“I have seen people returning to use our services who I met with nearly 20 years ago. That’s a long-term relationship, and this continuity is very important,” said Gaspari, the center’s fourth executive director. He also has been involved in the center in each of its three decades — as a graduate student/intern in the 1980s, associate director in the early ’90s and executive director for the past 10 years.

The center was founded by the late Frances Feldman, a pioneer in the field of social work and longtime USC faculty member. “Frances recognized the importance, well before most, that the university’s efforts to assist faculty and staff in the integration of their work and personal lives would pay dividends for both the individual and the enterprise,” Gaspari said. “She has left us a terrific legacy.”

The center strives to build upon its early leadership role in the employee assistance program field. In 2006 and 2008, USC and the center were recognized through the California Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award program. In 2006, the center earned the association’s best practices award and, in 2008, USC won top honors for educational institutions.

“We are proud of the center’s affiliation with the school and of the center’s innovative and dedicated service to the university’s faculty and staff,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “This anniversary is an extraordinary milestone in the center’s long history and in the field of university-based employee assistance programs.”

Three Decades of Leadership and Service

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