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The Pros and Cons of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

June 7, 2023
By Pivot
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Employee assistance programs (EAP) are the hallmark of a great employer. That’s why 52% of companies offer them. Of course, these programs are not without challenges. Anticipating those challenges and having a plan to address them is paramount to keeping employees happy and healthy…and resilient.

Here’s a primer on EAPs that will help you design your programs.

EAPs: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

EAPs were first introduced in the late 1930s to help employees struggling with alcoholism. These programs slowly evolved to help staff remain focused and productive with the goal of increasing on-the-clock performance. Today, EAPs offer so much more. In particular, they give employees the resources they need to solve issues professionally and in their personal lives. 

For example, many of today’s EAPs help employees with work-related challenges as well as mental health problems (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression, and grief), health and caregiving challenges (e.g., coping with chronic diseases, smoking cessation, or locating eldercare or daycare services), family issues (e.g., marriage counseling or family planning), and financial challenges (e.g., budgeting, achieving healthy spending habits, loan consolidation, and debt repayment). 

These programs may be even more comprehensive as employers seek better to understand the connection between our work and personal lives. Particularly as more people work from home, the line between personal and professional has blurred. When there is an impact on one, it spills over into the other.

The con of EAPs: Low utilization

Even though EAPs have been around for nearly a century, companies haven’t quite figured out what works. One challenge is low utilization. The EAP utilization rate remains consistently below 10%. That’s low! It isn’t because employees are consistently happy, healthy, and stress-free. In fact, people are more stressed out and anxious than ever before. Twenty-seven percent of Americans say that on most days they are so stressed they can’t even function, according to a poll conducted for the American Psychological Association.

Fortunately, there are many ways to increase utilization. First is better communication. Employers must hit the right channels necessary to fully engage diverse and widespread eligible populations. This requires tailored and empathic messaging to engage people.

The second is easier access. If possible, don’t require employees to go through human resources (HR) to access EAP-specific services. When people need to go through HR, this strips away any semblance of privacy. Also don’t require screenings or complicated processes to sign up. Make it as easy and quick as possible.

Third is more wraparound support. Supporting your employees is great, but how do you know whether you’re truly meeting their needs? For example, if you provide stress management only during times of crisis, might there be an opportunity to expand that service to help employees navigate all of life’s ups and downs? Likewise, if you only offer two or three sessions of smoking cessation counseling, might there be an opportunity to provide ongoing support so employees can really work on the issue over time? Keep in mind that it takes people 30 attempts, on average, to quit smoking. The process can take its toll mentally, emotionally, and physically

The pros of EAPs: There are many

Now let’s take a moment to reflect on the pros of EAPs done right—that is, programs that leverage tailored communication, promote easy access and provide ongoing support.

  1. Increased productivity. It’s a simple concept. Employees who feel good (both physically and mentally) show up and perform. They focus on their work-related obligations and leave their worries at the door. In fact, 84% of employers report higher productivity and performance from their employees due to wellness plans.
  2. High return on investment. Happier, healthier employees ultimately cost employers less money through lower premiums and less frequent turnover and absenteeism. In fact, companies that provide wellness programs see a six-to-one return on investment on average.
  3. Employee satisfaction. More than 80% of employees whose employers are engaged in their wellness say they actually enjoy work. The best part? New EAPs often leverage virtual benefits, apps, and web-based services that cater to an increasingly remote workforce. These programs also offer extra benefits to provide employees with even more support, and in some cases, unlimited access. 

How do you maximize these pros? Choose the right benefit that can act as a referral point to other benefits you offer. For example, consider providing a stress management solution that helps employees understand the root causes of their stress and how to handle them. If a person realizes they tend to smoke when stressed out, you can point them to the smoking cessation services you provide. Or perhaps they eat poorly in which case you can point them toward nutritional counseling. 

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Frequently Asked Questions About Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

What is the purpose of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)?
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EAPs programs employers provide that are designed to help employees solve both professional and personal issues. They offer resources for work-related challenges, mental health problems, health and caregiving challenges, family issues, and financial challenges, with the ultimate goal of increasing productivity and employee satisfaction.

What kind of assistance can modern EAPs provide?
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Modern EAPs can assist employees with various challenges including mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, and grief, health and caregiving challenges like coping with chronic diseases, smoking cessation, or locating eldercare or daycare services, family issues such as marriage counseling or family planning, and financial challenges like budgeting, achieving healthy spending habits, loan consolidation, and debt repayment.

Why is the utilization of EAPs often low, and how can this be improved?
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The utilization of EAPs is often low due to factors like lack of awareness, difficulties in access, and perceived lack of privacy. This can be improved through better communication, making access to these services easier without having to go through HR, and providing more comprehensive, ongoing support to address employee needs.

What are some of the benefits of well-executed EAPs?
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Well-executed EAPs can lead to increased productivity, high return on investment, and enhanced employee satisfaction. They can lead to higher performance, lower premiums, less frequent turnover and absenteeism, and greater enjoyment of work. They also often incorporate virtual benefits and web-based services for the convenience of an increasingly remote workforce.

How can an EAP act as a referral point to other benefits?
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An EAP can act as a referral point to other benefits by helping employees understand the root causes of their issues and pointing them toward relevant services. For instance, if stress management solutions reveal that an employee smokes when stressed, the program can refer them to smoking cessation services offered by the employer.

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With a little proactive planning and strategic thinking, employers can create an EAP that truly gives employees what they want and need.

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