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Underused EAPs Are a Missed Opportunity to Help Workers

Employee assistance programs are breaking down silos to coordinate care

A man talking to a woman on a couch.

While most employers offer an employee assistance program (EAP) as part of their benefits packages, these services often go unused because employees don't know about them or understand what they provide—or employees may feel there's a stigma around using these services. This missed opportunity can hinder workers from getting help they need, said speakers at the annual conference of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), held at National Harbor, Md., the first week of August.

EAPs have become a core benefit: 91 percent of Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members polled earlier this year said their organizations offered an EAP, up from 79 percent in 2015.

As EAPs become more common, the services they provide through their own counselors or other vetted professionals are expanding.

Next-Generation EAPs

"Organizations are looking at EAP potential with a fresh set of eyes," said Dale Grenolds, the executive vice president at EAP provider CompPsych, at the DMEC conference.

In the past, he said, employers would most often contract with an EAP to give employees two to three sessions with a counselor. "Today, it's more likely that employers provide eight to 10 sessions involving a wider range of work/life support, from housing and relocation issues—including locating emergency shelters—to child care and elder care needs, or legal and bereavement support when a loved one dies."

While legal and financial problems account for roughly one-third of the calls to an EAP, counselors increasingly provide advice on more-routine but no less important issues tied to life events, such as planning a wedding, preparing for a new baby's arrival or "helping a single dad plan a low-cost vacation to Disney [World]," Grenolds said. Thinking about retiring? EAPs can provide resources for that, too.

He said that one employee experiencing marriage problems contacted the EAP to ask about obtaining a separation or divorce. However, "after talking with a lawyer about the legal and financial ramifications, [he] reconsidered and asked to meet with a marriage counselor instead."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

Digital and Holistic Assistance

EAPs, like other benefits, are now app-accessible, allowing participants to interact with counselors online. However, "many people still like to pick up a phone and talk to a clinician," Grenolds said, and "24/7, we're there, whether you're in crisis or it's something less urgent."

EAPs are also taking a holistic approach, he said, helping employees navigate their employer's medical, wellness, financial-services and leave offerings. EAPs may craft a support plan—"solutions that are not cookie-cutter," Grenolds explained—for employees with mental and behavioral issues, such as substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder.

To create a program for employees with depression, one EAP coordinated with the organization's health insurer and pharmacy benefit manager to identify those taking depression-related prescriptions. It then sent letters reminding these employees about EAP services, Grenolds said.

Such coordination involves "agreements between vendors and the employer to make sure the data sharing is approved" and to prevent employers from seeing health information that would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Grenolds noted.

Beyond Counseling

Tracy Hamill, medical director at Sun Life U.S., noted that the EAP available at her firm provides employees or sometimes their aging parents with transportation to medical visits.

For those dealing with health issues such as diabetes or other chronic conditions, or behavioral health issues that can range from addiction to stress, the EAP can put together a team that collaborates on an individual action plan, Hamill said. Team members could include, along with the employer or HR manager:

  • Vocational/rehabilitation consultant.
  • Behavioral health specialist.
  • Nurse clinician.
  • Case manager.

The team can coordinate with doctors and other treatment providers to devise reasonable workplace accommodations or, if necessary, a return-to-work or return-to-productivity plan.

The EAP at Sun Life also refers workers to community support groups, Hamill said, and this support "helps employees remain at work instead of taking disability leave, or return to work sooner."

Helping employees with physical and mental health issues to remain productive and at work "is better for individuals, their families and society at large," Hamill said.

Getting the Word Out

If an employee applies for financial aid from an organization's hardship fund but doesn't get it, "advise the employee to seek financial resources and counseling through the EAP," Grenolds said. When a new employee has relocated to join the company, "the EAP can complement relocation services and help the employee to recreate social networks and find resources ranging from gyms to churches."

Whether employees have diabetes, lower-back pain or depression, the collective goal should be "early intervention, before a condition becomes debilitating and requires a leave from work," Hamill said. "Help early on can avoid more costly repercussions by preventing a downward spiral. The sooner we can normalize someone's condition, the better for everyone."

But employees won't ask for resources if they don't know about them, Grenolds said.

Instead of just giving an employee the EAP's phone number, HR should ask, "Do we have your approval to reach out to the EAP on your behalf?" Grenolds said. With permission, the EAP would then reach out to the worker. "Employees can always opt out, but they're more likely to connect with the EAP if they're contacted directly."

Related SHRM Articles:

Employers Fight the Stigma Around Mental Health Care, SHRM Online, May 2019


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