Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are supposed to help employees deal with life and work challenges. The death of a loved one, the heart-breaking end to a long-term relationship and the challenges of caring for children while also supporting an aging parent can affect a person’s well-being and lead to mental health struggles. Since problems at home create problems at work and vice versa, EAPs help employees and employers.
Unfortunately, a phenomenon in the industry — so-called “embedded” EAPs — undermines that mission.
Studies show stress, depression and suicide rates are on the rise across the nation. It’s estimated burnout is responsible for 20 percent to 50 percent of annual employee turnover. As news headlines tell us, behavioral problems can become dangerous. Employees who lose their jobs and imperil workplaces, employees or family members who threaten suicide and intoxicated employees who operate heavy equipment and passenger vehicles and cause accidents all pose threats. Given the stakes, it’s essential an EAP actually does what it’s supposed to do. Supporting employees and employers when they’re most vulnerable is sacred. Organizations should be able to trust an EAP will be there when needed.
That’s not always the case, however. There’s a growing trend in the industry to embed some EAPs in such other services as long-term disability or health insurance. This embedded EAP might even be offered for “free.” In a recent article in the Journal of Employee Assistance, David Sharar writes: “Of course the so-called ‘free’ EAP is not really free. But the buried low price of the program allows the insurer to easily absorb the EAP expense into (its) overall plan fees. Put another way, the EAP is sold at or below cost to attract attention to a higher margin product.”
It costs money to pay counselors to support troubled employees, mediators to resolve workplace conflicts, trainers to teach how to build strong teams, crisis support centers to help someone who might be suicidal and workplace violence experts to mitigate threats. The dirty secret is some EAPs employ various strategies to reduce costs at the expense of employee well-being.
Sharar spoke with ex-employees of some large EAP vendors who discussed tactics to manage costs. They described how, after an initial phone intake, an employee is diverted away from EAP counseling and towards receiving self-care help, referral to a website or online program or a direct referral to a specialist covered by the employee’s health benefit plan. Another tactic is to provide little or no promotional support. An EAP must be consistently promoted to remind employees of the service when they most need it. Low visibility leads to low use. Some embedded EAPs won’t even provide employers with use reports.
The research is increasingly clear: The heart of what an EAP is supposed to provide — brief, solution-focused counseling combined with an assessment and referral to other resources for long-term needs – works. Problems are resolved and employees who receive help are both more productive and less likely to miss work or leave the job. Work teams that learn more effective ways to communicate and organizations that become more efficient and harmonious contribute to the bottom line.
A relatively new evaluation tool called the workplace outcome suite (WOS) offers a way to quantify the benefits of an EAP. Employees complete the WOS at the beginning of counseling and again three months after they’ve completed EAP services. The results clearly show the EAP model, when used as intended, makes a significant difference in increasing productivity and decreasing the costs of absenteeism and turnover. Tangible workplace benefits far exceed the cost of providing comprehensive EAP services — a return on investment starting at $3 for every $1 spent.
Employees dealing with a significant life challenge who’ve summoned the courage to finally reach out for help but then get triaged to a call center can become disillusioned. Then the opportunity to improve their lives and help them become more productive and happy employees is lost.