They are among the most valuable but oft-overlooked programs offered by organizations: employee assistance programs (EAPs). Counseling services provided by EAPs help employees deal with everyday or extreme challenges that can impact workplace productivity and performance, improving employee well-being in the process.
EAPs traditionally have assisted workers with issues like alcohol or substance abuse. Now, the programs also offer counseling for a broad range of issues such as child or elder care, relationship challenges, financial or legal problems, wellness matters and traumatic events like workplace violence. Programs are delivered at no cost to employees by stand-alone EAP vendors or providers who are part of comprehensive health insurance plans.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]
For HR professionals, what are the most effective criteria for selecting the right EAP vendor or for ensuring a current partner is meeting expectations? Here is some advice from industry experts on choosing EAP vendors and a comparison of leading employee assistance programs.
Choosing an EAP begins with finding the right provider for your employee population size. Programs generally fall into three categories: those provided as part of medical plans; those that include broader behavioral health resources; and stand-alone "boutique" companies that only provide EAP services.
"A company with 100,000 or more employees should look to a larger EAP vendor [offering broad services] while a company with 1,000 employees might match itself to a boutique EAP," said Marina London, a spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), a membership organization for employee assistance professionals.
HR professionals also should ensure EAP counselors have the right credentials, London said. "You want phones to be answered 24/7, but you also want counseling provided by a clinician with a master's degree," she said, even if there might be additional costs involved for that expertise. "If the EAP doesn't guarantee that, you should probably look elsewhere."
Mandie Conforti, a senior consultant specializing in employee assistance programs at Willis Towers Watson in Chicago, agrees that the education and experience of EAP counselors should be a top selection criterion. "You need counselors who are clinically trained to do biopsychosocial evaluations, because many people contacting an EAP have more than one problem they are dealing with," she said.
[See a list of vendors and compare their services here.]
You'll also want to guarantee that it takes no longer than 72 hours from the time an employee contacts an EAP to the time they receive counseling support, and that there will be appropriate follow up after initial counseling, London said.
"Even if an EAP refers an employee out for something like a substance abuse problem, you want assurances they are going to follow up on that referral and make sure the employee got to that referred provider and received proper care," London said.
EAPs should also provide multiple contact and service channels, experts say. There should be options not only for face-to-face and phone service but also for video-based counseling, online chatting and e-mail interactions. Younger workers increasingly prefer these channels, and these communication methods can help overcome scheduling conflicts, transportation challenges or the privacy concerns of employees worried about the stigma of getting professional help.
Service Offerings Grow
"Think hard about the services you want to pay for beyond traditional offerings because they can be very valuable," London said.
Wellness represents a growth area as organizations ask for services like meditation, nutrition counseling, yoga and smoking cessation along with more traditional EAP services, she added.
"We are starting to see more wellness vendors launching their own EAPs. They take a more proactive approach to head off stressors that employees face in the workplace," Conforti said.
LuAnn Heinen, a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based National Business Group on Health, said HR leaders should ensure EAPs offer some level of customization for their organizations. "For example, financial management counseling should be tied to stages of life so employees receive a range of advice around student debt, handling mortgage payments, [and] saving for college and not just on retirement savings," she said.
It's also important to consider how well-matched an EAP is to your organizational culture, London said. "If you feel you have a unique culture, you may want your EAP to have experience working in a similar environment," she said. For example, it's not uncommon for many large banking organizations to experience robberies, events that can traumatize employees. "Has your EAP served a similar-sized bank before?" London said. "You'll probably want to know that before making your choice."
Evaluating Outcomes and Service Quality
Top EAPs also help employers increase awareness of their services.
Employees typically are concerned about the stigma of seeking professional help or are worried about keeping their use of the EAP confidential. EAP vendors follow the privacy protections that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives employees.
Conforti said HR leaders also should determine the level of personalized service they'll receive from an EAP vendor. "You'll want a dedicated team assigned to you, especially if you're a larger employer," she said. "You want providers who are going to live and breathe your company."
EAP vendors should meet with clients regularly to review reports on program use and the impact of EAP services, Conforti said. "The reports shouldn't just cover demographic data or the number of calls made by employees," she said. "They should provide data on the outcomes of those contacts so you can use the information to increase availability of certain services or rebrand the EAP if necessary."
HR leaders are increasingly looking for more empirical evidence that employee assistance programs are paying dividends, London said. To that end, EAP provider Chestnut Global Partners created a tool called the Workplace Outcome Suite—supported and endorsed by the EAPA—that gauges the effectiveness of EAPs using quantifiable business measures. London believes another criterion for selecting an EAP should be whether it participates in this performance measurement initiative.
What Do They Cost?
On average, organizations should expect to pay between $1.50 and $2 per employee per month for most EAPs, London said. "With smaller or boutique EAP providers that serve fewer numbers of employees, that cost could go up to $3.50 per employee per month," London said.
EAPs also differ by the number of counseling sessions included in an employer's plan. "Some EAPs might have a three-session model and others a six-session model," London said. Data show that the greater the number of sessions, the more frequently employees tend to use services, London said, because people opt to use the free EAP instead of their health insurance plans.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist based in Minneapolis.
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