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McKenzie helping employees deal with life’s bumps

Owen McKenzie
Photo by Matt Kelly
Owen G. McKenzie, the new program manager of the University’s Faculty and Employee Assistance Program, thinks it’s important for people to acknowledge each other’s value and contributions.

By Matt Kelly

In his second week on the job at U.Va., Owen G. McKenzie missed two meetings one morning because his car would not start.

Getting through the day meant shifting to Plan B.

“The secret to a long and happy life is how well you handle Plan B,” said McKenzie, the new program manager of the University’s Faculty and Employee Assistance Program.

Employee assistance is all about what happens when Plan A fails.

“Relationships sometimes get fractured,” McKenzie said, “and we don’t know quite how to deal with issues that come up. It could be divorce, loss of a child in an accident, a serious illness or an elder care issue.”

FEAP is a division of the Health Services Foundation and is available to University and Medical Center employees. He and five counselors handle about half the cases in-house, with the remainder referred to outside providers. The service is confidential, clients see professional counselors, and FEAP records are kept sealed and never mixed with personnel or medical records, he stressed. The office handles about 1,000 cases a year.

People have standard reactions to crises, including denial, suppression and reactive and explosive behavior, he said.

“Once you run the wheel of behavior possibilities, it doesn’t matter if you are a physicist or a pharmacist or a cook. We all deal with these kinds of situations in a predictable fashion,” McKenzie said.

Alan Cohn, who shepherded the program for 10 years until recently becoming director of employee relations at the University, is comfortable with McKenzie at the helm.

“It’s like giving a birth to something,” Cohn said. “You want to make sure the adoptive parent meets with your approval.”

“Alan left an outstanding legacy,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie represents a good blend of private sector and nonprofit experience, Cohn said. In addition to launching and operating employee assistance programs at DuPont plants in three states over the past 10 years, McKenzie has 15 years’ previous experience running 14 drug-addiction facilities in Michigan and Florida and running a small employee assistance program in Michigan.

A graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, McKenzie also spent five years in a Redemptorist seminary, which trains priests for missionary work in South America and Asia.

“I decided a life of celibacy was not for me,” McKenzie said. “There was another calling. It doesn’t surprise me that I ended up working in behavioral health care.”
He recognizes that people need more appreciation, in small ways, every day.
“I think it is terribly important for all of us is to acknowledge each other’s value and contribution,” he said “Nothing more than, ‘Hey, I really appreciated your smile this morning.’”

McKenzie sees people adhering more to core values and being aware of the fragility of life following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“Hopefully, some of that has held on, in terms of looking and touching and caring and sharing, in spending our time at the family dining table as opposed to fighting over the channel surfer in the family room,” he said.

His own staff holds biweekly peer-support meetings, which help them deal with the stress of their jobs. For his own stress relief, McKenzie points to three prints on his wall, each a photograph from a different golf course.

“Being out there and putting that little ball on the ground and looking at the panorama on tee No. 1 or hole No. 4 is a very relaxing and fun experience,” he said. “If it weren’t fun, I’d walk away from it.”

McKenzie has been living on a golf course in Columbus, Ohio, where he and his wife, Kathy, a dental hygienist, can play four or five holes some days after work. But McKenzie knows it may not be relaxing if you play with the wrong people.

“I’ve seen people who get really wiggy, like throwing clubs or kicking a golf cart,” he said. “They should get themselves some help or another sport.”

He is looking for a house near a golf course or on water.

Despite the stresses of the job, McKenzie still finds his work “extremely satisfying” because it is constantly changing. “You never know what kind of conflicts there are or what a manager wants to talk about,” he said.

He said employee assistance is an important service he hopes people never have to use.

“Just know that it is there, “ he said, “in case you wake up one morning and don’t know where else to reach.”


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