Assistance programs offer workplace win-win

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson

Not long ago I was talking with a friend about the difficult experience of trying to find care for her elderly father, whose dementia had progressed to the point he could no longer be left alone. It was time-intensive and emotionally draining. With a full-time job and children still at home, she felt overwhelmed.

As an employee of a medium-sized organization, it might have crossed her mind she could access no-cost counseling through her employee assistance program (EAP) benefits to alleviate some of the stress she was experiencing. What she likely didn’t realize is she also might have been able to delegate some of the work of her caregiver search.

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

Triad EAP could have made the search for elder care more manageable for my friend. One of the services the Grand Junction-based company offers is what’s billed as a “work-life benefit” to help people find the services they need by doing the time-consuming legwork for them. Qualified care consultants provide consultation, research and referrals to help find things like child care, relocation services, smoking cessation programs and elder care, with no fees to the client.

Most medium-sized and larger companies in the United States offer access to an EAP. Many smaller businesses do, too. The services are usually free to employees and their immediate families, yet fewer than 7 percent of North American workers use their EAP benefits, according to Chestnut Global Partners, an international behavioral health organization.

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

About one in five Americans experience some kind of mental health issue in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This in turn leads to absenteeism, “presenteeism” (physically present, but mentally distracted), higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and lost productivity. The World Health Organization estimates that globally, companies lose the equivalent of $1 trillion in productivity due to employee depression and anxiety issues.

Here in Colorado, poor mental health takes an especially large toll. Mental Health America, a century old national mental health advocacy organization, ranks Colorado 48th of the 50 states and District of Columbia for the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues with a higher ranking indicating lower prevalence.   

Employees often don’t fully understand what an EAP can offer or even realize the benefit is available.

Apprehension about employer access to personal information presents another reason EAPs aren’t used more. Employees need to understand the same confidentiality rules that apply to other medical and behavioral health providers also apply for most EAP services. There are some confidentiality exceptions when someone constitutes a danger to themselves or others, child abuse has occurred or records are subpoenaed. Even then, employers are generally kept out of the loop.

Employers have much to gain from offering an EAP and promoting its use. Along with improved mental health among workers, availability and use of an EAP also is associated with fewer work-related accidents and employee grievances as well as decreased turnover.

According to the results of July 2018 survey conducted by workplace consultant Peldon Rose, 72 percent of office workers of all ages want employers to champion mental health and well-being in the workplace. When available and used, EAPs help employers create a supportive environment in which employees and business alike thrive.