Making Employee Assistance Programmes work – 7 ways to address issues

What is an Employee Assistance Program?

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are workplace interventions designed to help employees deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health, and well-being. EAPs typically include short term counseling services, referrals for additional assistance, and follow-up services for employees. They are often part of an overall commitment to wellbeing and a health strategy, and encompass both physical and mental health.

According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, more than 97% of large companies (over 5,000 employees) have EAP offerings free of charge to employees.  Yet take up is typically in the single percentages. Despite all the policies and strategies, it often ends up that EAPs end up being either ineffective, or simply a case of wellness washing. 

7 issues facing Employee Assistance Programs – and how to address them

1. Cost vs benefit

Employers may struggle to see a direct return on investment with EAPs as the benefits, often in the form of improved employee wellbeing and productivity, can be hard to quantify. A lot of this comes down to measurement. Employers do not have the right systems and structures in place to collect data and feedback. 

Using tools such as Wysa with built in data collection (anonymous), the Employee Mental Health Barometer to get a snapshot of rates of depression and anxiety – and how they shift over time with the use of your employee assistance program, and gather regular quantitative and qualitative feedback. Through individual assessments and broader employee snapshots you will know where best to direct resources. Continuously evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of the EAP services offered and update them in response to changing employee needs and feedback.

Present this to your board as evidence of the need of having an employee assistance program, the use of things such as counseling services, and how your EAP is improving wellbeing and against metrics such as productivity and absenteeism – things that cost the largest businesses over $30 million a year. Regularly review utilization and outcome data to assess the EAP’s effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to make it more useful for individuals in your organization.

A 2016 study from the Employee Assistance Research Foundation indicated that “employees receiving EAP services showed improved work functioning (reduced absenteeism and presenteeism) significantly more than well-matched comparison groups of employees not receiving EAP services.”

Interestingly, it was a series of high-profile occupational stress cases that led to their expansion in the UK. During a case in 2002 between Sutherland v Hatton in Lady Justice Hale said: ‘An employer who offers a confidential advice service, with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, is unlikely to be found in breach of duty.’ Therefore a comprehensive program can actually be a protective measure for an employer and help mitigate against insurance claims. 

Early support for employee mental well-being has strong economic benefits through enhanced productivity, reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and turnover. Research around our stepped care model and treatments are associated with an increase of 30% in cost savings for employers

2. Utilization rates

EAPs should be a part of a broader workplace wellness culture that encourages and supports employee wellbeing. Employers may find that utilization rates of EAPs are low, which can be due to a lack of awareness among employees or a perceived stigma associated with using such services. The EAP may not address specific issues that employees face, or the solutions provided may not be effective or personalized enough. Employees from diverse backgrounds may find that EAP services are not culturally sensitive or do not meet their specific cultural needs.

Run awareness and advocacy campaigns that ensure people know what services are available to them. Undertake a management consultation to find out what support they need to help engage their teams. Work with EAP providers to tailor services to the specific needs of the workforce, including cultural competencies. Wysa provides wraparound support such as emails, webinars and workshops which is why take up rate is much higher. It’s not enough to simply offer services and have health care in place – it needs to be known that it is available to an individual, whatever life throws at them.

3. Stigma

Stigma around mental health is still a huge issue. In All Worked Up we found that 4 in 10 US employees suffer moderate to severe mental health symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Alarmingly, 1 in 3 employees who screened positive for mental health symptoms have not yet spoken to a relevant healthcare professional about it, such as a doctor, nurse, wellbeing practitioner, coach, counselor, therapist or psychologist. And 29% say that this is due to embarrassment. Employees may fear stigma or job repercussions from using EAP services, particularly for mental health issues. An article from Forbes cited stigma as the main reason EAPs just don’t work.

Find an employee assistance program that is confidential so people feel comfortable opening up. Wysa is completely anonymous, and because it’s available on an employee’s phone (with Slack integration coming in 2024), no one would ever know they are using it. Perfect for those crisis moments in the middle of the day.

4. Quality of service

Ensuring that the EAP provides high-quality, relevant services that meet the diverse needs of the workforce can be challenging. Within your workforce you may have people with anxiety, depression (in fact as All Worked Up shows, a large proportion will), substance abuse issues, physical health complaints, insomnia, family worries, workplace concerns and more. It’s important to have a program that can address the multiple needs that different people face at different times.

But equally it’s not a one size fits all. It is crucial that even in the largest organizations a personalized approach is taken. By using digital and AI tools resources are directed to the individual in a very personal and tailored way so that the advice and support given is structured to their individual needs.

5. Eligibility

Some employee benefits programs or EAPs can be complicated to understand when it comes to eligibility, which can limit take up of a service.

Provide comprehensive, informative and simple to understand literature that helps people know how to make a referral, how to access a service, if there is a supplement to pay, which benefits are voluntary, whether their family is covered and any cost. Make it easy for employees to access EAP services with clear, simple procedures and multiple points of access.

6. Problem identification

Many EAPs don’t highlight issues or identify problems, which can mean it is difficult to know where to direct your EAP service and offer benefits for the best effectiveness. They rely on individuals having the knowledge and education to know where to go – yet in All Worked Up 1 in 3 (32%) with clinically significant symptoms that warrant professional help said that they didn’t think their condition was serious enough for counseling sessions or support.

Additional research from over 150,000 conversations that 11,300 employees across 60 countries had with Wysa found that at the start of the work day, a high number of employees (31%) reported feeling stressed and anxious. These feelings spiked during the work day (36%) and fell at the end of the work day (19%).

Wysa reduces the need for managers to identify high risk cases. Whilst managers should be trained on the signs that an employee may need help and how to encourage them to use EAP services, there needs to be another element at play. AI tools provide support in the moment, but the most effective ones also have crisis escalation channels, with human crisis support being triggered one of three ways: digital detection during AI conversation; clinical screenings and daily mood scores; or the user hitting the SOS button. None of these require a manager to check in, or a culture in which someone feels confident to speak up – although these aspects should absolutely play part of a mental health strategy. By providing anonymous aggregated data on the health of your workforce you know at any one time what interventions are needed and what are working – without opening yourself up to insurance claims.

7. The real issue

EAPs primarily focus on individual remedies such as short term counseling or exercise plans rather than addressing the context of the problem – a corporate climate where stress and burnout is on the rise, which may render them limited in effectiveness, said a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Create a positive and psychologically safe culture where good mental health is prioritized. Alongside awareness campaigns and activities this includes addressing psychosocial factors associated with employment such as high workloads, unreasonable deadlines, no breaks, fear of taking paid time off and stressful environments. Leadership should visibly support and advocate for the EAP to reinforce its legitimacy and value and demonstrate a commitment to changing structural issues within the organization that can be leading to poor mental health.

By addressing these issues, employers can ensure that their EAP is a valuable resource that effectively supports the well-being of their employees, thereby improving overall organizational health.

Image by FG Trafe from Getty Images Signature, Canva.
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