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Supporting employee wellbeing with employee assistance programs

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To produce their best work, your employees may need assistance with a wide range of issues – from mental health and substance abuse counseling to childcare and legal matters. By offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), employers can help support employees and their family members while fostering a productive company culture.

What is an employee assistance program?

An employee assistance program provides services to help workers deal with professional or personal issues. For example, many EAPs offer counseling sessions or psychological assessments. Some may also offer legal consultations, childcare resources, various referral services and other types of assistance. These services are confidential and usually free for the employee. Some companies offer EAP services in-house, but others may contract with EAP service providers to offer such benefits.

Although employers have recently developed an increased focus on supporting overall employee well-being, employee assistance programs are not exactly new. In fact, research published in the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses states that EAPs date back as far as the 1800s. The Fredonia State University of New York says EAPs were used in the first half of the 1900s to address the high rate of alcoholism among white-collar workers. Over time, EAPs expanded beyond substance abuse to provide services for other mental, emotional and financial difficulties.

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Mental Health and Counseling Services

As mentioned, EAPs began as a way to help workers deal with substance abuse issues. Today, many EAPs continue to offer counseling sessions and assessments to help with mental health, substance abuse and stress management.

These resources can be invaluable for employees dealing with mental illness or a substance abuse disorder, and the percentage of employees who may benefit from an EAP could be larger than employers might expect. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says 17.3 percent of adults have health with a substance abuse disorder in the past year.

Many workplaces have drug-free policies, but enforcing these policies isn’t always easy, especially when a high number of workers are struggling with addiction. SAMHSA says offering substance abuse support through an employee assistance program can help a company’s drug-free workplace program succeed, along with helping the individual worker overcome marital, medical, financial, or legal problems that are impacting their well-being.

Other EAP Services

Employers and employees alike often talk about finding a work-life balance or juggling professional and personal responsibilities. But, the reality is that people cannot always separate their personal lives from their work lives. Even when employees try to leave their personal problems at home, nagging worries may distract them from their work duties. Problems that keep them up at night may also cause fatigue, which can impact work performance. Some issues may force workers to miss work entirely or to leave their positions, contributing to turnover. EAPs that are designed to address these issues can help workers be more productive. Other than mental health and substance abuse resources, EAPs can include services like:

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The ROI of EAPs

The justification for EAPs is fairly straightforward: when workers are stressed about their personal challenges, they may be unable to perform at their best. EAPs can, therefore, boost performance by addressing the underlying problems. Likewise, EAPs may improve company culture, employee engagement and employee retention by providing valuable benefits.

For example, imagine a worker is depressed and begins drinking to self-medicate. As a result, his sleep worsens. He’s tired at work and makes mistakes. He shows up to work inebriated, creating liability exposures for the company. With counseling, the worker may be able to recover and become a productive employee again, contributing to a productive environment and potentially gaining a sense of loyalty to the company for their support through their EAP.

Employers can also use EAPs as a recruitment tool to attract top talent. Counseling services, legal consultation and other EAP perks may be a deciding factor for some job seekers.

Research published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health found that EAPs have a return ranging from $5.17 to $6.47 for every dollar spent, largely due to increased productivity. More recent research in the Workplace Outcome Suite also shows that EAPs deliver a good return on investment due to the associated increase in productivity and decrease in presenteeism. In 2019, EAPs had an ROI of $4.29 for every dollar spent. In 2020, EAP utilization increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ROI increased to $5.04 for every dollar spent.

Encouraging EAP Utilization

EAPs can benefit employees while delivering a good ROI, but this return is dependent on the utilization rate. If a high percentage of employees use the EAP, workers will experience the benefits, and the company will be more likely to see a good return. However, if employees do not use the EAP, they will not benefit, and the company will have wasted its investment. For this reason, employers need to find ways to encourage EAP utilization.

  • Raise awareness. In many cases, employees may not use EAP services because they do not realize these services are available to them. For example, a worker may hear about the EAP as a new employee but have forgotten about it by the time he needs some of its services. Likewise, an employee may know the company offers an EAP but not realize it includes a service she needs. To avoid these issues, employers need to educate workers about the services available and provide regular reminders.
  • Assure confidentiality. EAPs provide many confidential services. However, many employees may avoid using EAPs for sensitive issues if they are worried that the services will not be confidential and the company could use any information they provide against them. To prevent this problem, employers need to assure their employees that the services provided through the EAP are confidential.
  • Remove stigmas. Some workers may feel uncomfortable using EAP services due to perceived stigma, especially for mental health and substance abuse issues. Employers can use messaging to show that these issues are common and to encourage employees to seek help if needed.
  • Encourage use from the top down. How management talks about EAPs could make a significant difference in usage rates. If managers are dismissive of the EAP services or – even worse – perpetuate stigmas surrounding the services, employees may not want to use them. On the other hand, if managers discuss EAPs positively, employees may be more receptive. If managers are comfortable doing so, they could even share their experiences using some of the services – for example, if they used the EAP’s financial or estate planning support.

Employee assistance programs are an attractive option for employers who are trying to support overall well-being. Higginbotham can help you put together an employee assistance package. Learn more about our employee benefits services and talk to a member of our team today.

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