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Solving the EAP Under-Use Puzzle

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can't help if employees don't use them

Helping employees deal with stress, financial issues and other personal problems can do a great deal to boost productivity. After all, few things are more disruptive and distracting to someone than needing help with personal challenges and being unsure where to turn. This is a key reason why employers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) as part of their benefit packages.

EAPs provide a range of services to help employees deal with a variety of difficulties in their daily lives, including everything from behavioral or mental health issues to financial difficulties to finding child care. The key challenge for employers is getting employees to use these services when they need them. According to a 2013 survey of 82 EAP providers conducted by the National Behavior Consortium:

A median of only about 3.5 percent of employees take advantage of EAP services per year, when available.

EAPs annually provide a median of 7.56 counseling sessions per 100 employees.

Of the employees using EAP services, 60 percent are female.

This low level of EAP participation is not a surprise to Pat Carroll, senior director of benefits and corporate development at Solix Inc., a technology company with about 350 employees based in Parsippany, N.J. “Our participation is pretty low but that is typical of an EAP,” she said, adding that the company’s EAP offers referrals for counseling and child care and summer camp options, as well as newer offerings like financial and legal counseling.

Confidentiality Is Crucial

Carroll cites employee concerns about confidentiality as a key reason for low EAP use. Quite simply, employees may not believe employer assurances that all EAP contact is confidential.

“Employees don't necessarily believe that we don’t know who has called the EAP,” said Carroll. She feels that this suspicion is deeply held by many employees. Push too hard to increase usage and employees might shy away from the program even more.

Relying on Vendors

There are ways to gauge EAP usage and what employees want from an EAP. Asking about the EAP as part of a broader employee engagement or benefit survey can help keep the focus on general benefit issues and not specifically on the EAP. “This information is imperfect and can't be verified due to anonymity but it gives a baseline,” said Amy Gulati, SPHR, GPHR, human resources business partner with Helios HR in Reston, Va. Focus groups are another option if they are run by an independent third party and complete anonymity can be guaranteed.

Although they need to be careful about utilization data, EAP vendors can still provide a general overview of what services employees are using most. This information can be put to use in a few ways. For example, if a large percentage of calls to the EAP pertain to child care or are inquiries into financial counseling, employers might decide to bring EAP personnel onsite for a lunch seminar about those specific topics.

EAP vendors can ask employees calling in to voluntarily self-identify in certain ways, suggested Gulati. This way, if the company is facing problems with absenteeism in a certain business unit or group of employees, it can receive a general idea if a problem exists among those employee groups. However, employers should discuss with their EAP how it will solicit this information. “If employees are asked too many questions, it decreases usage and has a counterproductive effect,” said Gulati.

Employers can also take a higher-level view when gauging the impact of an EAP. For example, before-and-after snapshots of metrics like unplanned absences, disability claims, number of necessary employee-related investigations, and number of claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act can indicate whether the EAP has had a positive impact.

If the EAP has been in place for some time, employers can gauge these metrics before and after a communication push or onsite presentation by the EAP vendor’s personnel.

Communicating the EAP

The push for greater use could involve simply reminding employees what the EAP can do for them and that it is available if they need it. Indeed, communication is often the most powerful tool employers have to make sure employees take full advantage of the benefits available to them. For instance, employers can:

Include EAP-related communication during open enrollment and when discussing other elements of the benefits program, to remind employees that the program is available if they need it.

Emphasize the range of services available, which can help break down preconceived notions of what an EAP can offer.

“Many employees still have a perception that EAPs are only for mental health issues or drug problems,” said Gulati. “Although EAPs were originally developed to address such concerns, the services today are much more expansive.”

Employers also should keep expectations in line. “We have gone from desk to desk on occasion” to let employees know about the EAP, said Carroll. “However, we have never really seen much of a spike in utilization.”

Finally, although most employers would understandably like to avoid this scenario, the EAP can also be a tremendous resource when the worksite faces an emotional upheaval, such as layoffs or a business closure, an act of violence, or the sudden death of an employee. In these types of special situations, employers can bring an EAP counselor onsite for a period of time to help employees deal with the stress of the event.

“The EAP can be very much appreciated by the people who really need it,” said Carroll.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

Also see:

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Policy: For Employees Only, SHRM Templates & Samples, July 2014

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Policy: For Employees and Family Members, SHRM Templates & Samples, July 2014

Managing Employee Assistance Programs, SHRM Templates & Samples, May 2013

Men's Personal Problems More Likely to Affect Work, SHRM Online Benefits, June 2013

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