It can be hard for employees to admit to their employers when they have a problem with their well-being, whether it’s serious health concerns, marital issues, or even financial trouble. Yet if they keep their troubles to themselves, it can eventually spill over into their work—compounding the problem for them and creating a new challenge for managers.
Luckily, employees don’t have to tackle these life and work challenges on their own. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) help employees manage everything from legal concerns to work-life stressors—all without any cost to the employee.
Not only does this service help employees, but it also helps employers. By having someone to confide in, employees learn how to better manage their problems and keep those problems from interfering with work. Plus, it’s a sound investment: For every $1 employers spend on an EAP, employers receive an ROI of $3 or more thanks to reduced leave, reduced turnover, and increased productivity.
Shannon Gordon, WellRight’s Human Resources Generalist, answers some frequently asked questions about EAP programs and their benefits.
Q: What Is an Employee Assistance Program?
A: An EAP is a line of coverage that’s generally provided through a company’s ancillary lines. This means that whoever offers an organization short- or long-term disability or voluntary life typically also offers an EAP that’s free for the employee to participate in.
These programs serve employees who are going through life stressors—like burnout, financial concerns, a divorce, or the death of a loved one—by allowing them to speak confidentially via phone with a certified counselor. EAPs allow for a fixed number of free counseling sessions per employee, with each session lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. While it isn’t a long-term counseling solution, it can help employees get the process started.
Q: What Should Managers Know About EAPs?
A: Three things: Whether they offer EAPs at all (some managers don’t know if this is part of their benefits package), that they’re free to use, and that most of them are available 24/7.
One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that EAPs often get lost in the benefits shuffle. Brokers don’t always think to provide employers with brochures or marketing materials on the programs, and employers don’t always ask for them. As a result, the service isn’t always communicated to employees.
Having these materials available means managers can familiarize themselves with the program—learning when the service becomes available to new employees, how many free sessions employees get, and what other perks may be included in the program—and then share that information with employees.
Q: What Participation Rate Should Employers Expect?
A: There’s not one “ideal” participation rate. Participation levels overall will vary dramatically, depending on the organization and its employees. In one of my roles in the manufacturing sector, we had a utilization rate of approximately 87 percent.
These high rates were good, in that we were glad people were using the program when they needed it. I’ve seen many employees participate in EAPs because they didn’t feel comfortable talking to another coworker, their manager, human resources, or even their spouse about how they’re feeling.
Of course, these high rates are also bad, because it means that many people are going through situations or experiencing life stressors that are leading them to use the program—and that’s always unfortunate.
Other employers may experience low utilization rates because employees are happy and things in their lives are going well overall. Low usage might also be because employees aren’t comfortable talking with a stranger about personal issues. Maybe they’re worried it’s not truly confidential. Or maybe employees simply aren’t aware the program is available to them. Fostering a culture of open communication and really listening to employee concerns can help managers get the full picture.
Q: What’s the Link Between EAPs and Employee Morale?
A: I’ve seen firsthand that when people know they have someone to talk to—to know they can talk confidentially about any personal or professional issue—their mood improves. You can literally see the relief wash over them over the course of their six or so sessions. And some of these employees tell me how grateful they were for this service because some of them couldn’t have afforded it on their own.
As a result, mood improved not just because they were able to talk with somebody and feel better about things, but also because they were happy to have an employer that offered this benefit. And a happy, healthy employee simply makes for a better employee. They’re better able to minimize the spillover of their personal stressors into their professional life and have better focus and a more positive outlook.
Q: How Can Employers Encourage EAP Use?
A: In the past, I've had employees come to me and say, "Hey, do you have a second? I want to talk to you about something." Usually, the employees want to give HR and management a heads-up that their performance might decline due to an ailing parent or a tough divorce.
And that’s the perfect time for your HR department to say, "If you ever feel like you need to talk to somebody, we have this free service for you. It's a benefit the company provides, and it’s completely confidential. Feel free to call."
Although you’ll never know whether the employee takes you up on the offer, this conversation lets them know the service is available.
Other employees might instead go to their manager first, instead of HR, to discuss any personal or professional issues. So it’s as important for managers as it is for HR to understand and promote the EAP to employees. Having managers promoting the program alongside HR can only improve utilization rates and make sure employees get the help they need. Plus, if managers share how they’ve benefited from the service, it goes a long way in reducing any stigma or embarrassment the employee might feel.
EAPs are an integral part of the wellness package. They really help bring a human-centered focus on the workplace by looking at the person as a whole—not just as an employee. Today, you just can’t ask employees to check their problems at the door when they come to work—it’s part and parcel of who they are. But when an employer notices subtle changes in behavior and can direct employees to the services that can help, that’s when you’re going to see a dramatic improvement in employee morale.