Assistance programs help employees navigate change

Stefany Busch

Job-related stress is the leading workplace health problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Productivity losses from absenteeism related to stress cost employers $225.8 billion — $1,685 per employee — each year.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to improve in Mesa County, with daily case averages dropping to the 20s and teens. Mesa County Public Health continues to pair down its pandemic response. We’re once again navigating changes in the pandemic that affect both our work and personal lives. Change can often trigger stress, but you don’t have to go at it alone.There’s no denying COVID-19 has affected every workplace in the United States. 

Employers looking for ways to better support and engage employees have turned to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Employees of many medium to large organizations have access to counseling through EAP benefits.

EAPs originated in the early 1960s as a way for employers to help workers with alcoholism and other substance abuse problems. Since then, EAPs have evolved to provide support for a wide variety of issues affecting employees — from mental health challenges to financial planning and legal assistance to life coaching.

Services are usually free to employees and their immediate family, yet fewer than 10 percent of employees in North America use EAP benefits, according to Chestnut Global Partners, an international behavioral health organization. 

This means many workers miss out on support and services that would otherwise be costly to them. It’s also important, however, for employers to recognize the effects this has on workplace culture and the bottom line.

About one in five Americans lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This translates to absenteeism, “presenteeism” (physically present but mentally distracted), higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and lost productivity among workers.

Here in Colorado, poor mental health takes an especially large toll. Mental Health America, a century old national mental health advocacy organization, ranks Colorado 45th out of the 50 states and District of Columbia for the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues. Higher rankings indicate lower prevalence.

Employees must understand the same confidentiality rules that apply to other medical and behavioral health providers also apply to most EAP services. There are some confidentiality exceptions — when someone poses a danger to themselves or others, when child abuse has occurred or records are subpoenaed. But even then, employers are generally kept out of the loop.

Employers have much to gain from offering an EAP and promoting it’s use in the workplace. Along with improved mental health, the availability and use of an EAP also is associated with fewer work-related accidents and employee grievances as well as a lower rate of employee turnover.