Employee Assistance Programs: What You Need To Know
Your employees have mental and emotional health issues. This isn’t an insult, just a pure statement of fact. Whether they’re facing a chronic illness, experiencing the effects of addiction, or just feeling like Charlie Brown in December, your employees need support from your organization to overcome these difficulties and continue to make meaningful contributions. Implementing an employee assistance program is an option for your organization to support your employees’ mental health and well-being.
What is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
An employee assistance program, or EAP, is a benefit that allows employees to receive free counseling sessions to ease the stresses in their lives, whether it’s dealing with a difficult coworker or caring for their children at home. These sessions are handled through a third party, so while employers get usage statistics, the employees who use the service remain anonymous.
Is an Employee Assistance Program Mandatory?
While there isn’t a universal requirement for employers to offer EAP access to their employees, these programs can be a valuable resource. A 2018 report from SHRM found that 78 percent of all employers were offering an EAP for their employees.
Benefits of an Employee Assistance Program
In general, people see better results when they can resolve a personal problem before it grows into a crisis. For example, an employee who is ready to punch his toxic coworker will have better results in his long-term career if he calls the EAP for some counseling than if he goes through with his plan.
When employees benefit from EAPs, their organizations benefit as well. Both sides can enjoy the results of improved productivity, reduced costs, increased morale in the office, and a reduction in turnover, accidents, and absenteeism.
What to Consider Before Starting an EAP
As with other benefits, you shouldn’t take the Kevin Costner approach with your employee assistance program and think that if you build it, they will come. It will take additional effort, promotion, and communication before your employees feel comfortable utilizing your organization’s EAP.
Because the personal issues employees discuss in EAP sessions are so sensitive, an EAP can’t just be an afterthought. Even though most EAPs use independent counselors, it’s imperative that employees trust your organization’s good intentions, or they may question whether this program is an elaborate method of weeding out poor performers.
You can encourage employee trust in your EAP by emphasizing that all utilization is anonymous—not just by saying the word anonymous in a presentation, but by explaining how the process works. When employees have a step-by-step knowledge of what to expect when they call the EAP, it makes it harder to imagine an HR scheme to invade their privacy. And while there aren’t laws to prevent employers from enforcing mandatory contact with an EAP after an incident, keeping participation voluntary prevents employees from feeling singled out or from seeing EAP participation as a punishment.
It’s also helpful to emphasize that calling the EAP can also equip employees with advice for family members going through difficulties. This helps employees in smaller organizations feel comfortable when demographics make anonymity more difficult in the usage reports (if there are two manager-level employees and one calls the EAP, for example).
Integrating Your EAP with Other Values-Based Benefits
While it’s important to take the right approach for promoting an EAP, it’s equally important to do so with the other benefits your organization offers. If your organization regularly proves that it cares about its employees with benefits that match its values, then employees are less likely to fear a reprisal from calling the EAP. And because many people who need EAP services are already in a negative emotional state, this reassurance can make all the difference in utilization rates.
Supporting an EAP as a part of a broader benefits plan also helps support the purpose behind the EAP: helping support your employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Your policies and perks should support a productive, happy life both in and outside the workplace. Otherwise, an EAP may be little more than a band-aid, trying to stop the symptoms of a larger problem without addressing the underlying causes.
Selecting and Implementing an Employee Assistance Program
Do your due diligence before contracting with an employee assistance program. Mental health science is advancing every day, so you’re going to want a program that participates in frequent retraining for its counselors. Your medical insurance provider may also have recommendations for EAPs that work well with mental health professionals in their network. After selecting an EAP, you can start implementing the program with this excellent template from Workable.
On a personal note, I’ve been through this journey. Coming to BambooHR from a less supportive culture made me realize what a difference an organization can make in its employees’ lives, even if it did take several weeks for it to sink in that BambooHR really did want me to Enjoy Quality of Life (one of our company values). When facing a personal crisis moment, I had seen enough examples within the organization to know that my team would support me through a rough patch, with or without an explanation. So I called the EAP, got the help I needed, and got back on track.
Supporting employees’ mental health is essential for a happy, productive workplace. Implemented correctly, employee assistance programs can be an invaluable turning point, setting employees on the path to recovery and growth.