Wellbeing in the COVID-19 Era: Why It’s Time to Rethink Your EAP

August 10, 2021

Even as the United States returns from varying degrees of lockdown to something resembling normal day-to-day life, Americans—even those who never contracted COVID-19—are suffering. This time, however, we can’t fight back with social distancing and obsessive hand-washing, nor stop the culprit from spreading even with billions in vaccine research. It’s the mental and emotional health issues brought on or made worse by a year and a half of living through a pandemic, and we’re beginning to understand how serious and long-lasting a problem it will be.

If you’re in HR at one of the thousands of organizations that remained in operation through the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve seen this crisis develop firsthand, but organizations that have recently come back to work or returned to full strength are now experiencing the effects as well. Either way, you should be asking whether your organization is prepared to deal with an issue this pervasive.

This is an opportunity for you to reexamine the effectiveness of one specific tool meant to support employee mental and emotional health—employee assistance programs (EAPs)—and readdress the continuing problem of underutilization that still keeps many employees from getting help.

COVID-19 Has Strained Everyone’s Mental Wellbeing

For years, experts have been sounding the alarm about a concerning decline in mental wellness, especially among younger people. The difference between that and what we’re facing today is the extent to which the past 16 months has made mental health a concern for the average person.

Employee Assistance Programs: What You Need To Know

In a CDC survey from June of 2020, by which time most states were in complete or partial lockdown, over 40 percent of U.S. residents over 18 reported that they were struggling with substance abuse or their mental health. Lockdown restrictions wouldn’t improve until the following spring, meaning we had yet to suffer through winter weather, worsening economic woes, and heightened political turmoil—not to mention any physical and mental health issues directly related to the virus itself.

Fast forward to today, and U.S. households are reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder at over three times the rate in July 2019. As for the workplace? In a 2020 survey, nearly nine out of ten employees reported workplace stress affecting their mental health.

What Are Participation Rates for EAPs?

Started in the 1940s as a way to combat alcohol abuse and its negative impact in the workplace, EAPs have evolved to provide a range of mental health and crisis assistance services. Current estimates suggest over 75 percent of companies with more than 250 employees offer an EAP. So with EAPs’ long history, their broad adoption, and the rapid increase of anxiety and depression symptoms reported over the past year, you’d think that participation would be higher than ever.

But while a majority (70 percent) of surveyed HR departments report that EAP utilization rose along with the pandemic, what counts as high in the realm of EAPs is still pretty low. Current usage statistics are hard to come by, but here are two key findings:

  • In multiple studies conducted prior to COVID-19, EAP usage by employees averaged less than 10 percent.
  • A study by the benefits provider Unum reveals that even in 2021, almost half of employees don’t know if their employer even offers an EAP.

Even without concrete numbers, we can infer that if half of employees don’t know about their EAP, a little over 50 percent would be the best possible rate of utilization—and that’s unlikely. Besides, for a program designed to address issues being felt by 90 percent of employees and their families, even 50 percent utilization is hardly ideal.

To combat these low participation rates, you need to acknowledge and tackle several significant barriers to EAP utilization. But first, a top-down evaluation of your existing EAP is in order to ensure that the offering will actually benefit your employees.

"Half of employees don’t know about their EAP—a program designed to address issues being felt by 90 percent of employees."

How to Evaluate Your EAP

Before you can address any barriers that stand in the way of your employees taking advantage of your EAP, you need to take stock of the program and determine whether it provides the level of service your employees might need.

Ask yourself:

  • Do we have a full understanding of employees’ needs around mental wellness within the organization?

Your front line managers are a great resource here. They work hand-in-hand with your employees and often understand personal struggles as employees go to  them and other supervisors for support at work. This inquiry isn’t specifically about mental health alone, but should include an understanding of special-case situations your employees may be experiencing, such as belonging to the “sandwich generation” of unpaid caregivers who are tending to both their children and their aging parents. This will allow you to determine what services your EAP should be providing and where you might need to offer additional support.

  • Are we committed to the idea of investing in emotional and mental wellbeing?

Without buy-in, your chances of success and further investment in any initiative are much lower. It’s HR’s job to ensure decision makers understand the impact of mental health on business goals and the possible repercussions of not providing assistance.

  • If so, are we providing the quality and amount of help our employees need?

With buy-in from above and a solid understanding of the issues employees are facing, you can look at what’s available from your healthcare provider and consult with an EAP advisor to determine what options best fit your organization and budget. A standard EAP package often includes brief, free counseling for employees and their families, some form of 24/7 crisis assistance, and consultation for employees who are caregivers. This doesn’t mean additional services aren’t available, but any more may come at a cost.

  • What other wellness programs and initiatives are we able to add to an EAP to provide additional support.?

Even organizations that can fully subsidize mental wellness programs beyond the standard EAP offering should investigate other means of investing in employees’ overall wellbeing. Employee resource groups (ERGs), mentoring, physical fitness programs—these are just a few ways your organization can help employees feel better about themselves, their careers, and their problems, and see their employer as a supporting partner.

What do your employees really think? BambooHR® Employee Satisfaction can tell you.       

What Keeps Employees from Using EAPs?

We asked our own HR director, Cassie Whitlock, why employees don’t use EAPs more and what organizations can do to change that.

“Lack of awareness is definitely a big issue,” Cassie explains, “and it’s the first one you should attempt to solve, because it all starts with understanding what an EAP is and how to access it.”

But while crossing the information hurdle is a huge achievement, according to Cassie it’s also the easiest.

“The other big things standing in the way aren’t the kind you can address by educating with passive resources or in company meetings.” Cassie continues, “They’re feelings and perceptions that are hard to overcome.”

The Top Four Barriers to EAP Utilization

Cassie offers these four significant barriers as standing in the way of EAP utilization:

1. Information Deficit: “This has multiple levels. You may have an employee who knows there’s an EAP, but doesn’t realize that it’s for anything other than a crisis. They may not know how to access it or how many times they can use it. ”

How to Address It: “Overcommunicate. You may think you’re doing a great job of telling employees about their EAP, but chances are, you are leaving some people behind. Be proactive instead of passive, use multiple channels to reach everyone in the organization, and encourage managers to do the same with their teams.”

2. Stigma Around Mental Illness: “There’s been progress, but people still stigmatize mental illness. Asking for help, getting counseling—that’s for people who can’t ‘tough it out.’ Which first of all is totally untrue. But it’s even more surprising considering Mental Health Month has been around for over 70 years.”

How to Address It: “Do whatever you can to create psychological safety and normalize mental health at the personal level. Tell stories, encourage anyone who’s used the EAP to share their experience, and create spaces where employees can share those experiences comfortably. The more people hear about something from trusted sources, the less they’ll feel uniquely challenged and unsure.”

3. Fear of Reprisal: “By law, [HR departments] don’t know who is using them, ever. But a lot of employees can hear that and still think that somehow, their employer will get wind of it and they’ll lose a promotion or be out of a job.”

How to Address It: “Sometimes we say something once and then move on to something we consider more important, and we focus on that—in the case of EAPs, you might think employees need to know the breadth of services or how to access them, and the confidentiality aspect is assumed. Don’t assume. Overcommunicate everything.”

4. Emotional Discomfort: “Talking about personal issues is hard, even with friends and family, even when you know you need help. In an EAP, that first conversation is with a total stranger. For a lot of people, it makes that call or meeting feel impossible.”

How to Address It: “Try to put faces on the program and give your EAP a human personality. We’ve actually started a lunch and learn program that’s helped with this; counselors from our EAP give a small presentation with wellness advice for employees. It has a side benefit of helping employees see the EAP staff as real, invested, friendly people they can talk to, and not just a telephone number.”

An Ongoing Mental Wellness Issue

It can be too tempting for organizations and even for employees themselves to think that, once we’ve removed the masks and returned to the daily grind, everything is OK. But the truth is that even before COVID-19 exposed and heightened emotional and mental health issues for people everywhere, they was already a significant issue. And despite increasing acceptance and improved communication about the ubiquity of mental illness, issues like stigma and the underutilization of available programs like EAPs persist. It’s up to the “people people”—in other words, human resources—to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help our workplaces recover and to create an even better normal for employees than before.

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Rob de Luca
Copy Director | BambooHR

Rob de Luca has written extensively on culture and best practices in the HR field, combining original research and input from HR experts with his own perspective as a manager, creative executive, and veteran of industries ranging from hospitality to consumer electronics. He believes culture is critical to organizational success and that HR holds the keys to defining the employee experience.