Think your EAP program is the answer to all your employee wellbeing needs? The straight answer is no…. But if you put the work into rethinking this once catch-all service you might be in for better results than you expected.....
Before the Covid 19 pandemic, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) were the cornerstone of many organisations’ mental health support yet even before the whirlwind of the last 2 years these programs have come under significant criticism for being nothing more than a well-being tick-box exercise. Organisations have historically treated them passively with the information on how to access them lost in the rabbit warrens of company intranets and employees barely even aware of their existence (utilisation can be as low as 4.5% MindShare Partners (2019)).
This low rate of awareness and utilisation is particularly important given the context of the last two years and specifically the renewed focus on mental health. Employees are…quite frankly…. burnt out. They are battling intense feelings of anxiety, low mood and stress and, amongst all the uncertainty, are questioning the meaning of their work and sense of purpose. For the people function so often tasked with “picking up” employee well-being - the case is much the same, if not worse (i.e almost half of HR managers have considered leaving their current roles). As such, it is no surprise that ‘the great resignation’, and plummeting levels of employee engagement are just some of the serious challenges senior leaders and the C-suite currently face.
In response to these challenges, organisations are re-examining their approach to mental health and there has been a plethora of new, sophisticated initiatives to try. From apps, to on-demand tele-therapy and in-house counselling and coaching services there has been a distinct move from the passive, one size fits all approach to increasingly proactive, personalised and tailored support.
So where does this leave good ole EAP’s?
Whilst clearly on their own, EAPs are insufficient to manage the whole spectrum of support needed to manage mental health and well-being effectively (and certainly do not compensate for poor organisational practices), they may yet have an important role to play, particularly if employers and organisations are prepared to put the effort in to maximise their potential.
4 reasons why EAP can be a great foundation
When it comes to EAP’s it is important to be clear about its role, how to maximise it and ensure that any needs outside of scope are appropriately catered for (and not just left to the HR department or well-being champions).
If EAP is treated as part of a process, it can become an important (and relatively low cost) pillar of any companies’ mental health support. Whilst it is recognised that EAP’s come in all shapes and sizes, below are the four key reasons why the core components of EAPs can make an excellent foundation for mental health support:
Scope of support - EAPs quite often cover all staff so everybody can have access to a service, no matter what their role, seniority or whether or not they opted into the PMI cover. In my experience, this ability to offer employees support regardless of pay and at a pace usually much quicker than your local mental health service has been pivotal to preventing deterioration in mental health. Current NHS services are under huge pressure, and whilst not every case will be suitable for EAP, having a support mechanism which can signpost appropriately can be hugely beneficial.
Confidentiality - Sometimes talking with a family member, friend or well-being champion isn’t the answer. One of the most attractive aspects of a valued EAP is confidentiality. Having access to a confidential, neutral and importantly safe space to discuss your situation, seek and explore next steps without fear of repercussion is crucial when thinking about mental health. Despite the strides made, stigma around mental health is still omnipresent and employees need the security of knowing their conversations are kept in the strictest confidence.
Wide range of support - Depending on the programme, employees can access a wide range of support from financial and legal assistance to family care information. This gamut of services can help employees address the inevitable combination of personal, family and work-related problems that impact mental health on a day-to-day basis. One only needs to look at the impact of high interest rates to see why financial and legal support can be a fundamental intervention for mental health in and of itself.
24-hour support - Mental health isn’t a 9 -5 thing and neither is the moment to decide to get help and support. The 24/7 support offered by EAP’s means that employees are covered no matter when they need the support (which can quite often be outside of office times). Having to wait till the next day may mean a crucial moment is missed.
4 reasons why organisations need to be realistic about EAPs
Although EAPs can be a great foundation, the programmes can’t cater for all scenarios. Like all of us, EAPs have limitations. Below we aim to highlight where in our experience EAP solutions fall short. Knowing about these will enable you to better understand what areas need exploration and improvement:
Access is at the wrong point - EAPs rarely exist in the employees’ context, knowledge base or frame of reference. Simply put, they can’t access something they have forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Thus mental health difficulties tend to get worse and can spiral before the situation gets flagged and somebody points to EAP. By that time the case can be too complicated for what the EAP offers.
Employee Expectations - When people are struggling and they try to make sense of their situation they want the reassurance of a named, appropriately qualified and skilled clinician - not necessarily a phone number or web address. Senior people, in particular, who have taken the brave step of coming forward are often vocal about this. Help really does need to be at hand - and in some cases in person.
Clinical Specialism - Complex and acute mental health problems require a different set of skills and response. EAPs tend to be set up and staffed for dealing with general low-level stress, anxiety and low mood. Considering how late most people tend to access the service, there’s a stark difference between offered solutions and the real needs of the employee. With more conversations opening up about mental health, there is an increased likelihood of employees talking about mental health issues above and beyond mild/moderate anxiety and low mood - organisations need to be prepared for this. It’s also the case that other members of an organisation may be involved in severe cases of mental health (i.e HR or well-being champions) - and they also need timely, high quality support in the moment.
A mass-market, band-aid approach to significant complexity - In more significant and complicated mental health cases accurately understanding, assessing and containing the situation is critical. The mass-market, funnel driven approach that EAPs (and indeed PMI) provides simply does not allow for this. This experience can lead to frustration, distress and unsupported individuals who can disengage thus making bad situations worse. Again the quality and time for response is potentially crucial to getting engagement and the right intervention - most EAPs just don’t have the resources or skill sets to manage this.
Making the most of your EAP
Once you are clear about what the realistic role of your EAP is and you have made appropriate provisions for the needs it can’t meet, it makes sense to seek to maximise its value. Below are 4 key steps that can help drive utilisation:
Set baseline - Analyse your existing EAP programme to understand your baseline regarding utilisation, how many people used it, what was the time lag between referral, and first appointment, how many people completed an intervention, what were they undertaking the referral for. Ask for employee numbers, not just percentages. This brings things into focus. It also allows you to feedback the information to your organisation - what do we need to do more of /less of.
Continuously increase your understanding of how your EAP solution performs - Review its performance regularly using the metrics above. Seek employee feedback (qualitatively as well as quantitatively), and speak with your provider regularly to discuss ways to increase utilisation.
Increase awareness and training around how to access the EAP - Include EAP education in the on-boarding process follow this up with regular reminders, training and continuous internal awareness campaigns. Messaging around what well-being services are available needs to be constant - not just during mental health awareness week and they need to talk about the experience and benefits of using.
Decrease friction - Accessing EAP should be as friction-less and simple as possible. Map out the whole referral process using employee feedback and EAP provider data to identify areas that should be looked at. Simplify the process by eliminating obstacles. It takes a lot for people to pick up the phone - walk them through what it is like, reduce the uncertainty, let them get a sense of just how simple the process is.
Reduce the stress of caring about how you manage mental health
After a 3-months long open dialogue with over 20 HR directors and senior managers, Amplify recently launched the HR and Manager Consultation programme, a pioneering service that specifically helps HR teams and managers reduce the stress of caring about how they manage mental health at work.