The pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental and physical wellbeing in the workplace. Many employers today are relying on employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to provide their employees, and employees’ family members, with support for their physical and mental health needs, as well as other practical needs.
However, do EAPs adequately fulfil their mandate? Let’s understand some of the common problems with employee assistance programmes in this blog.
How employee assistance programmes work
The EAP model was designed three decades ago to help people deal with addiction and rehabilitation issues. Basically, the focus is on supporting people who need help and might feel at their lowest.
EAPs services are offered by third-party agencies to whom employers outsource their workplace wellbeing initiatives. The employer using the EAP service decides what kind of employee services it would like to provide as part of these programmes.
Most EAPs are focused on supporting the mental wellbeing of employees around personal and work life issues. To deal with these issues, EAPs usually conduct mental health assessments and short-term mental wellbeing support along with referrals and follow-up services. In addition, EAPs may also provide practical need-based support such as childcare, elder care, financial and legal services etc.
Why EAPs are typically a short-term, reactive measure
For progressive employers, EAPs may seem a good first step towards introducing health and wellness services for employees. The problem, however, arises from the fact that most EAPs use short-term and reactive approaches that may not allow for enough space and time to fully intervene and address employees’ concerns and issues.
Let’s specifically talk about workplace mental health services. In order to be meaningful and achieve a large-scale shift towards an emotional healthy workplace, psychological interventions be comprehensive, in-depth, and consistently delivered.
EAPs typically use a one-off approach, where an employee avails of a counselling session, and his/her issue is addressed in isolation by the counsellor or psychologist. Rarely does the EAP factor in the employee’s work environment, including the organisation’s culture, his/her relationships with colleagues, and other contributors to their declining mental health.
Therefore, the tendency to react, or put out fires as they occur, is an indicator of the reactive nature of EAPs. This is in contrast to a proactive approach, which involves long-term initiatives to identify stressors and create a roadmap for the individual (and team, if needed) to get on the path to emotional wellbeing.
Low utilisation - a major challenge for EAPs
Globally, most companies with over 1,000 workers have an EAP in place. The average utilisation of EAP services, however, is around the 4.5% mark, which means that under five percent of employees tend to use these services.
Low employee utilisation of services provided by EAPs is a major hurdle that organisations are looking to overcome. Here are some reasons for the low utilisation rates.
EAPs are undervalued by employees
Significant undervaluation of EAP services by employees is a major contributor to their low utilisation rates, says an article in Forbes. In many cases, it adds, EAP helplines yield a blank or unsatisfactory response that lowers employees’ likelihood of reaching out to them.
EAPs can be expensive
EAP services are an expensive additional cost to the company. The most established EAPs have a global presence and therefore, might be very expensive to have as an extension of the company. Therefore, companies might opt for limited services to be provided as part of the EAP. Such a choice might lead to limited support being available for use.
Creating awareness is time-consuming
Thoroughly informing employees of the details of an EAP programme can be time consuming as this information needs to be relayed through all communication channels used by employees, including offline and online interactions. A lack of programme education leads to employees facing difficulties in identifying EAP services that could have resonated with their respective needs.
Even though EAPs are meant to be confidential service providers who offer on-site and offline interventions, employees might feel reluctant in using these services due to the risk of revealing their problems to their managers or colleagues. Walking into a therapy space in front of fellow colleagues might not be a comfortable experience for most individuals.
Cost to employees
Since EAPs usually provide a limited number of free intervention sessions for each employee, on completion of these sessions, continuity becomes a concern. Since additional sessions or continuing with intervention might incur additional costs, it could act as a deterrent to utilisation of services.
Additionally, a non-financial cost borne by the employee in such a situation may be the discomfort in resharing and revisiting unpleasant struggles, situations, and feelings with a new mental health professional each time they use the service.
EAPs’ own limitations
Employee Assistance Programmes have their own limitations such as unavailability of professionals to take on further employees as clients, the short-term nature of psychological interventions, non-user-friendly accessibility features, etc.
Fixing the gaps
So to summarise, the EAP approach is somewhat broken. Here are some things organisations should look out for when getting a wellbeing partner.
Your partner should not wait for people to experience distress and then call-in for support. They should be able to intervene before your people’s stress turns into distress.
Through scientific analyses and discussions with the management, employees, HR heads, and other relevant stakeholders, the wellbeing partner must provide an assessment of the ‘emotional health landscape’ of your company, with concern areas being flagged at the business and team level. This assessment becomes the starting point of a comprehensive roadmap to transform your organisation’s culture and people practices.
Many employees do not utilise mental health services due to the misconceptions and myths, stigma around it. A good wellbeing firm will defuse this stigma and lack of awareness.
To do this, the wellbeing partner will engage your people via measures like wellbeing assessments, emotional check-ins, and wellbeing workshops held in a non-threatening, non-stigmatised environment. Such regular interactions help foster awareness, trust, and the start of a therapeutic relationship with the wellbeing service provider. They also make it more likely that your people will utilise the wellbeing services.
EAP providers offer support through phone helplines where the employee doesn’t know whom he/she is speaking to. There is also zero or limited visibility on the qualifications and experience of the counsellor/psychologist on the other end of the line.
In contrast, a good wellbeing partner will put its team ‘out and in front’, so that your employees know the names of the mental health professionals they are speaking to, as well the latter’s qualifications, years of experience, skills, etc.
Turning wellness into a ‘mass movement’
A good wellbeing partner will ally with your organisation to create a ‘mass movement’ for mental wellbeing, championed by your senior leaders. When leaders advocate better mental health and set an example, employees find it easier to participate as well.
Finally, your wellbeing partner must be clearly able to demonstrate the value they bring to the table. Through statistical and technology tools, they should be able to compare the baseline versus endline results, and provide your management team with data-based insights that you can use for strategic decision-making.