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HR's Guide to Employee Assistance Programs

May 12, 2020
By

The current global health crisis and all the hardship it’s brought about have underscored the importance of prioritizing employee mental health. While it’s been uplifting to witness teams go the extra mile to support one another, sometimes professional help is what’s truly needed.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) help employees by supporting them through a variety of challenges. But although most companies offer them, many employees aren’t even aware these services exist or know how they work, much less take advantage of them. Here’s what you need to know to create an impactful EAP offering at your company that will benefit everyone, especially during this tough time.

What Is an EAP?

Let’s start with the basics: EAPs are an employer-sponsored benefit that provide support to employees for a broad range of issues. The modern-day EAP evolved from occupational alcoholism programs of the 1940s, and today EAPs offer services for a wide variety of needs. Here are some of the issues that EAPs can address.

Mental Health Concerns

Depression, anxiety, adult ADHD, and substance abuse are just a few mental health concerns that EAPs can help with. These issues may be blatantly affecting employee performance at work, like causing employees to miss deadlines or come into the workplace under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Or the stress of unaddressed mental health concerns may be more subtle, affecting your employees’ ability to focus, communicate, and be a productive team member. 

Workplace Conflicts 

Conflict is naturally going to arise in the workplace from time to time. There’s no way to avoid it, but handling it sensitively and skillfully can make all the difference, which is where EAPs come in. Mediation or conflict resolution through an EAP can help employees work through the issue — whether it’s with a peer or a supervisor — constructively, so employees can move past it and it doesn’t get in the way of their daily performance at work.

Childcare 

Sourcing childcare can feel like a full-time job, on top of having a full-time job. When parents work, carving out enough time to find nurturing, secure, and affordable childcare is not an easy feat. EAPs can alleviate stress by undertaking this search for working parents.

Elder Care

Today, in addition to caring for a partner and/or children, many working adults are also responsible for the care of their aging parents, who may be facing physical or mental decline. This is an incredibly emotional and stressful burden to bear, and once again, EAPs can provide some relief. In this instance, EAPs can offer support to caregivers through counseling, or provide adult day care services for those suffering from conditions like Alzheimer’s or those who need supervision throughout the day.

Grief Counseling

Most companies offer some sort of bereavement leave, but grief is a process that requires ongoing support, and isn’t going to be neatly wrapped up by the time the employee has to return to work. EAPs provide services that help employees work through the emotionally devastating experience of losing a loved one, like one-on-one grief counseling or on-site workshops to help teams better understand how to support grieving coworkers in the workplace.

Legal Guidance

Occasions arise when employees need legal advice, whether they’re going through a divorce or dealing with a child suffering from substance abuse. Comprehensive EAPs can also help in this arena, too, by providing discounted legal services for employees. With many EAPs, the initial legal consultation is free and subsequent services are available at a discounted rate. These include standard legal services like preparing a will or assisting with divorce proceedings, adoptions, or juvenile defense.

Financial Services

Amid the day-to-day grind, people often don’t have the time and energy to take stock of their finances and plan for their financial future. Some EAPs include professional financial services to help employees and their immediate family members tackle big financial hurdles, like saving for a down payment on a home, creating a plan for retirement, or investing for the first time. 

Crisis Counseling Management

In the aftermath of an acute crisis like a death in the workplace, natural disaster, or other traumatic event, EAPs can dispatch counselors to support employees in the office. They can also provide support through an ongoing crisis, such as what we’re currently experiencing with the COVID-19 outbreak

Types of EAPs

Through your company’s EAP, you have the opportunity to provide really impactful services for your employees, so selecting the right model is important. Two common ways they’re offered is as an addition to your company's healthcare plan or as a standalone option. Let’s take a closer look at the two most common models of EAPs.

Bundled EAPs

Some EAPs are packaged as part of an employer’s long-term disability or health insurance plan. A bundled plan presents the opportunity for employer savings, but this EAP model rarely provides the services of a comprehensive program, and the governing body of EAP professionals, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), warns against them.

“Buyers can and have been misled by unscrupulous group practices, counseling or healthcare providers, insurance companies and brokers who sell a traditional mental health service plan and tack on a limited employee counseling or referral service. This is not an EAP,” said the EAPA in their EAP Buyer’s Guide.

This is because bundled EAPs often lack contact with the workplace, can include unexpected fees, and can even lack qualified providers. The association recommends full-service, standalone EAPs as a better option for a sound EAP with quality, comprehensive services.  

Standalone EAPs

These EAPs are not part of an insurance company but rather an altogether separate entity. Proponents of standalone EAPs highlight the flexibility and opportunity for partnership they offer, as standalone EAPs are nimble enough to create customized programming for a company.

“A true partnership includes being aware of what’s going on in an organization, whether it's navigating a company merger or supporting an employee’s personal issues” said Karen Laos, EAP consultant and longtime HR specialist. “The key is being embedded in the fabric of the organization enough to understand what their needs are without having to ask,” Laos said.

Similarities Between the Two 

Whether you choose an EAP that’s bundled as part of your health insurance plan or go with a standalone offering, both EAPs will likely have some similarities, like the way payment works.

Unlike healthcare plans, employees are not required to pay for EAPs. For most plans, employers subsidize 100% of the cost of counseling services for a predetermined number of sessions, usually between one and five. If after using those initial sessions the employee is referred for additional visits, those will likely be covered by their healthcare plan. In other cases, employers may elect to subsidize a portion of the cost, with employees responsible for covering the rest. But it’s important to note that this may differ depending on the service the employee is seeking. For example, adult care day care services and legal services may not ever be fully subsidized.

Both bundled and standalone EAPs share similarities in how their services may be accessed, too. Quality EAPs that abide by ethical standards have a direct contact method, so individuals don’t have to rely on HR to connect them to these confidential services. 

Factors to Consider

Selecting an EAP comes with a lot of considerations. In addition to choosing an EAP model and service offering that meets a large spectrum of your employees’ needs, you’ll want to ensure your choice offers remote counseling services and makes employee confidentiality a top priority.

Remote Counseling Services

When you’re selecting an EAP, consider how employees will access the services. Teletherapy was once seen as an undesirable option, but today it’s how many people choose to access their counseling or mental health services — even before the coronavirus pandemic created our new reality.

Shin-Di Lai
, RN and registered acupuncturist, appreciates teletherapy because it keeps her on a regular schedule. “I prefer to be in person [for my therapy appointments],” Lai said. “However, telemedicine for mental health and therapy is an amazing option to maintain consistency. It’s actually more convenient sometimes, as I often struggled to find the time to travel to my therapist’s office,” she said.

While some may be skeptical about the effectiveness of teletherapy, for many people there’s still great benefit in a video visit when they can’t meet with their mental health practitioner face to face.

Research has shown that teletherapy via video is comparable in effectiveness to in-person psychotherapy,” said Michael Carollo, PsyD, New York City-based psychological fellow and outpatient therapist. “It's been found to be particularly effective at helping individuals adjust to stressful events, manage life transitions, improve interpersonal relationships, and reduce the impacts of depression and anxiety,” he said.

Employee Confidentiality

EAPs exist to help employees work through tough times. But sometimes employees are reluctant to take advantage of these services because they fear that it won’t be kept confidential. As long as an employee is voluntarily using the service, EAPs are bound by law — and a code of ethics — to protect employee confidentiality. The only exception is when an individual shares information that they are hurting themself or others, or if children are being neglected.

The online nature of therapy during social distancing has raised other concerns about confidentiality, but Carollo said patients needn’t worry: “The client and therapist connect via a secure and encrypted video platform to hold the session and ensure confidentiality,” he said.

Employer Advantages of an EAP

It’s no secret we’re heading into uncertain economic times. With a looming recession, employers may be considering trimming employee benefits as a cost-saving measure. But before slashing your organization’s budget for EAPs, consider the value they provide — especially during turbulent times when employees can greatly benefit from this type of support.

The stress of an economic downturn is difficult enough in and of itself, but it can also magnify other issues employees may be struggling with. Marital or relationship tension could be exacerbated by financial woes, quality childcare becomes challenging to afford, and rates of substance dependence or abuse increase.

Employers can support their employees by providing comprehensive EAPs. In turn, employers benefit from a more content and focused workforce. Here are some things offering an EAP can do for your company.

Increase Productivity 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lost productivity is estimated to cost US employers $1,685 per employee per year. Oftentimes a distracted worker has a heavy personal burden they’re trying to manage, and stressed employees have higher rates of absenteeism

Bolster Employee Value Proposition

An employee value proposition (EVP) is the unique combination of tangible and intangible benefits and rewards an organization offers its employees. A strong EVP frames employees as internal clients to impress. Providing support for a broad range of issues employees and their families may face is a key component of that.

Provide Cost Savings 

As a tool that can increase employee productivity, bring down healthcare costs through early intervention, and build a more engaged workforce, thoughtfully selected EAPs are a powerful cost-saving measure. 

How to Encourage Employees to Use EAPs 

Creating an EAP is only half the battle; it’s not doing any good if employees aren’t using it. HR includes information about EAPs as part of the onboarding process, but in many cases that’s the last time it’s mentioned. Here are some ways to make sure this benefit is top of mind for your employees.

1. Get creative about reminding employees regularly.

Laos said it’s common to highlight EAPs when an employee joins a company and then never discuss it again.

“When I was in HR, I was guilty of the same thing — but you have to be really intentional about reminding employees of this service,” Laos said. “It’s a true benefit, and HR should work to make it more prominent by reminding employees once a quarter and exploring other opportunities to promote services, like through email campaigns,” she said.

2. Take a top-down approach.

Karen Condor, a research editor for an auto insurance comparison site, has taken advantage of EAPs on three separate occasions. But to do so required her to take the initiative.

“In all three instances, employers only mentioned their EAP as part of employee benefits at new-hire orientations and at annual benefits reviews,” she said.

Condor thinks the benefit should be emphasized from the top down. “Executives should encourage management to promote EAPs. It would be easy to incorporate it as part of a talk with an employee when expressing concern about that employee’s performance,” she said.

3. Highlight services when they're needed most.

Online support group 7Chairs, which works with EAPs, has seen a spike in recent activity. They’ve facilitated groups for recently laid-off employees and helped others adjust to working from home.

Irad Eichler, 7Chairs CEO and cofounder, said the organization is also working with first responders at various hospitals to deal with the emotional side of the coronavirus’ effect on their daily lives.

“These employees are in bind right now, and getting help and support might not be the first thing on their minds,” Eichler said. “We felt appreciated from both the participating employees and the managers for the impact the groups had on their employees,” he said.

Making for a Better Workplace

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re in the middle of a global health crisis, so there’s never been a better time to highlight your organization’s EAP or consider investing in the service. The benefits could make a huge difference in the lives of your employees and the overall health of your company.

“Whenever I’ve shared my EAP experience with a coworker, they’re initially shocked...then intrigued,” Condor said. “I think heightened awareness could help so many other employees, and in turn make for a better workplace,” he said.