It’s time for EAPs to realise their full potential

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are now a familiar feature of the workplace landscape in the UK, with most large organisations offering them on a confidential basis to their employees. Their success can be measured in the fact that almost half of the employees in the UK now have access to an EAP.  An excellent Work Foundation paper recently acknowledged the important role that EAPs play in maintaining the wellbeing of UK workers but it also challenged them to achieve more. Different studies have suggested that the average uptake for EAPs is between 3-5% of the workforce, which does seem surprisingly low, given the convenience of EAPs and the impressive range of services they offer. They frequently provide everything from counselling on personal and work stress to legal consultations and from debt advice to guidance for managers, so why aren’t usage rates significantly higher? This is an issue that particularly interests me as in a previous life I used to manage an internal EAP for a major UK employer. I am all too aware how difficult it is to establish an EAP as a trusted and valued part of the organisational infrastructure. However of one thing I’m sure, this low level of uptake really isn’t about quality. EAPs operate and recruit to very high professional and ethical standards.

For me the heart of the problem is around confidentiality and awareness.  Firstly confidentiality; the suspicion remains, in the minds of some employees, that information about their usage of the EAP will find its way into the hands of the business or of their manager. Given that many use EAPs to seek support over sensitive issues like work stress, mental health problems, or their relationship with their boss, it’s easy to see why fears about confidentiality may inhibit some from seeking help. At the same time there are poor levels of awareness of EAPs and an ignorance as to the full range of issues they can help with. Too often if employees are aware of the EAP, it is only in connection with counselling on stress or depression. Whilst this is an important part of what they offer, this perception is unhelpful as they offer so much more.  The view can also gain currency that you have to be struggling psychologically to need the EAP. Indeed I have heard employees, when offered access to the EAP, respond with “What – you think I’m cracking up or something”.

On paper these issues should be easy to address but it’s proving a hard nut to crack. I believe it’s down to the very relationship between the employer and the EAP. Because great play is made of the EAP being an independent and external body that can be trusted with the highly personal issues employees bring, businesses sometimes feel that they need to keep the EAP at arms-length; otherwise what could seem like an over-cosy relationship might affect levels of employee trust in the EAP. This can result in businesses taking a cautious approach to promoting their EAP. Whilst I understand the thinking behind this, it is mistaken.

My EAP too struggled with these issues. We found that the route to increased uptake was to increase the visibility of the EAP on-site, within the different areas of the business. The fact is that other promotional mechanisms, whatever their merits, aren’t nearly as effective as a personal presence. Leaflets and intranet features can be a great way of initial awareness raising but the message often doesn’t stick. Nor except in occasional instances can you rely on word of mouth. Owing to the sensitivity of the issues raised with an EAP and sadly, because of the stigma associated with seeking help with those issues, some employees who have received an excellent service are reluctant to talk about it.

By carrying out on-site presentations about the EAP services we ensured the employees had a detailed understanding of what the EAP was and of the full range of services available. And in the Q and A’s that followed employees were able to raise and explore any concerns and fears they had. This allowed them to test us out but it also gave us the opportunity to explain how confidentiality works and why maintaining it was as important for the credibility and reputation of our EAP as it was in protecting the interest of the users. Hosting on-site sessions like this enabled us to address both the awareness and confidentiality issues head on.

Of course in a large organisation you can’t reach every employee in this way. Our answer was to target line managers. As the Work Foundation report rightly recognises, line managers have a key role to play in supporting employee wellbeing, indeed they are usually the first organisational touch point for employees that are struggling.

By presenting to line managers we killed two birds with one stone, making them aware of the service should they ever need it themselves but also giving them a new support resource to draw on should members of their teams need help. As a consequence of this approach over a 3 year period not only did our client numbers grow very significantly but managerial referrals became, by a huge margin, the biggest source of our referrals.

To get such a campaign off the ground it does implicitly require a close working relationship between the business and the EAP and I appreciate this was easier for us to achieve from within the business.  Such collaboration is attainable for an external EAP too but it requires commitment on both sides. The business needs to allow EAPs access to work-sites, it needs to promote the presentations well and to give managers the time off to attend them. The EAP in turn needs to commit itself to the intensive publicity activity that such a campaign demands. But the pay-off is huge. It made a transformational difference to the uptake for my EAP.

We know that businesses purchase EAPs for a variety of reasons; to reduce sickness absence, to enhance the brand image, as a recruitment and retention tool, or to be seen as a good employer. They can achieve all of these things and more if they treat the EAP as a vital part of their wellbeing offering. Building a strong relationship with the EAP pays dividends. Feedback from the EAP about the types and frequency of issues brought to the service by their employees can provide good insights into the health and wellbeing of the organisation. The resulting information, combined with other organisational metrics such as sickness absence data and breakdown of usage of occupational health services can help shape the content of future wellbeing programmes. At a more granular level, anonymised EAP data can help to pinpoint some areas of an organisation that might benefit from a particular wellbeing intervention – say resilience training. Interventions targeted toward need in this way are much more likely to have a positive impact on business performance.

All the evidence is that EAPs are here to stay but there are so many ways businesses can get better value out of the relationship they have with them than they currently do. It’s in the interest of all parties, including their employees that they do so.

This blog was contributed to the Work Foundation’s website by Paul Barrett, Head of Wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity (@Lcoridon). If you are interested in the issues raised by this article or would like to contribute to our blog please contact us.