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Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Does your company have an Employee Assistance Program? If so, how do you promote it? And if you don’t have one, why not? Learn the different types of EAPs, how to support your employees by implementing a robust program, and how to encourage your employees to use it. (Hint: personal experience is the most powerful!)

What Is an Employee Assistance Program?

An Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, is a program offered by an organization (most often an employer) that provides free, confidential services to participants to support and improve mental and emotional wellness. These services generally include counselling, referrals to other professional services, and basic assessments. Participant concerns may include coping with abuse, stress, grief, etc. Some programs cover financial and/or physical health services in addition to mental/emotional wellbeing.

Employer Advantages to Having EAPs

The benefits to the employer of having an EAP are numerous. Whether life is getting more complex and difficult, or humans are just getting less capable of dealing with it, employees need support to navigate the difficulties in life and work. Here are a few benefits of EAPs.

Low Cost, High ROI

Obviously, the cost of your EAP and its Return on Investment (ROI) will depend on your company. However, if you take a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) perspective, the cost the company bears for these services can be easily weighed against helping one suicidal employee, helping one family cope with abuse, etc. Sometimes the metrics mean more than the numbers show.

And if you are determined to stick to the data, most EAPs provide ROI data to you (after all, they are selling you a voluntary service).

The Workplace Outcome Suite© (WOS) Annual Report 2020 found that “ROI ranged from 3:1 for small-size employers, 5:1 for medium-size employers and to 9:1 for large-size employers.” In other words, at 25% ROI, smaller employers stand to see the greatest returns, compared to 17% and 10% for medium- and larger-sized employers, respectively. Even a 10% ROI is a solid return that most C-level leaders would make time to learn about from you, their data-driven HR professional.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism

Absenteeism is when your employee doesn’t come to work; presenteeism is when they shouldn’t have bothered coming to work, because no work is getting done: they are present and accounted for, but not participating or engaged. Both issues are costly to your company—financially, due to lowered productivity, and culturally, as these employees tend to cause ripple effects like frustrated managers and teammates trying to pick up the slack.

Both of these are indicative of a troubled employee. It could be illness, burnout, depression, or any other number of issues, all of which could be at least improved, if not mitigated entirely, through the successful use of an EAP.

Lower Attrition Rate and Fewer Discipline Cases

As described above, some employees may remove themselves physically or mentally from the workplace in an attempt to cope with their concerns. You may find that successful use of the EAP may even out the cost of the program against the cost of terminating and recruiting in these situations.

Improved Employee Engagement

The more engaged your employees are, the higher their productivity will be because they will use discretionary effort in their jobs (that’s the extra 10% in giving 110%).

Having an EAP program can assist employees who are not feeling engaged, as well as their frustrated team members. This can turn a mediocre performer into a star player who can mentor others, or raise an underperformer to an average employee.

An EAP program, once it is known and understood, demonstrates care to your employees. It shows a kind of organizational level of emotional intelligence where the company proves it values the human beings who work there, and acknowledges that life and work are hard.

Workplace and/or Life Trauma

Sometimes, despite vigilance and careful planning, something awful can occur at work, such as an unexpected death, a nasty accident, bullying, or even serious violence. Similarly, world events (like, say, a pandemic) can have big impacts on your organization. Having an EAP puts you in a better position to immediately respond to urgent employee needs.

Types of Employee Assistance Programs

EAP services can be provided by a third party or from within your own organization. The costs and difficulty in managing the program vary depending on the structure your organization chooses.

For those EAP structures that provide services from within your own organization, consider how you will provide psychological safety and ensure confidentiality.

Be mindful that a number of regulations affect how you run an EAP, even if there is no requirement to have one. For instance, there could be applicable elements of COBRA, ACA, HIPAA, ERISA, and more. Don’t forget to check state and local regulations as well.

Fixed-Fee or Fee-for-Service Contracts

Most commercial EAPs bill either via a flat rate per eligible employee (fixed-fee) or on a fee-for-service basis, meaning each service used is billed to the company.

Both have benefits, depending on the specifics of your individual company. For instance, if you believe there will be low usage of the program, then fee-for-service may be more cost-effective. Conversely, if you cover a large number of employees and their families, fixed-fee may be more cost-effective.

You may find yourself encouraging employees to use the service more with a fixed-fee program because it is already being paid for.

Peer-assistance and Member-assistance Programs

In a peer-assistance program, your employees will be trained to provide services to other employees. Member assistance programs work the same way, but are generally descriptive of labor-union EAPs.

It is critical to assure that training is provided to those wishing to assist their peers, whether the training is developed by you on a common-sense and emotional intelligence basis, or by utilizing a third-party training service. Peer Assisters must have empathy, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and grounding in confidentiality expectations to be able to help. These programs can be used as a means to supplement a commercial EAP by referring peers to those services. Peer Assisters must be able to be vulnerable and share their own experiences and how they overcame them, but they also have to understand that they are not a licensed therapist.

Management-sponsored

These programs are run by existing staff in your company, much like ombudsman services. Public ombudsmen (also called “ombudspersons” or “ombuds”) are generally government-appointed positions that investigate complaints, but they also help resolve conflicts. Some companies opt to recruit an internal ombuds, who then serve as a neutral party to investigate claims and mediate between parties within the company. They typically report directly to C-level (or perhaps a step lower) to help preserve their impartiality.

While not as well trusted as a third-party EAP, some employees will be able to find help by talking to a trusted leader that isn’t their own manager. As above, leaders need training before launching a program. Ideally, every leader in your company serves as an informal management-sponsored, in-house EAP.

Hybrid Models

Because there are no regulations requiring an EAP, you are free to mix and match in the ways that make the most sense in your organization. For example, one organization enjoyed a 45% increase in their commercial EAP use after introducing a supplementary peer-assistance program that referred employees to EAP services.

Examples of Employee Assistance Programs

Commercial EAP providers offer a wide variety of services in their packages. Most offer demonstrations and case studies of how they have helped specific employers. Here are a few EAP companies and their specific approaches to helping employees.

Lyra

This company focuses on using evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Modern Health

This EAP uses an app to guide participants through self-assessments and makes recommendations based on the assessment.

Spring Health

In addition to the expected mental wellness offerings, Spring Health provides financial and legal services.

Health Advocate

Because they are interested in advocacy on behalf of participants, Health Advocate includes services such as second opinions and clarity around the costs of healthcare.

How to Encourage Employees to Use EAPs

There are an infinite number of ways to encourage your employees to use an EAP. Most important among them is to be authentic and persistent in your approach.

Step 1: Be Persuasive

Let’s talk about What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM). Being an HR professional means, in part, that you need to hone your persuasion, influence, and negotiation skills. The first step in any communication, and especially persuasive communication, is to know your audience so you can give them what they want (or package what they need into something they are more likely to want). We call that WIIFM because when you start talking, that’s what people are thinking, consciously or not.

To encourage an employee to use the EAP your company offers, think first about what that specific employee will find appealing about the prospect. Note how different that might be from going straight to the benefit they will derive if they use it.

For some employees, the driving factor may be money or time they can save, and for others, it may be an ability to finally find relief through one of the benefits. Some people are in such a bad way by the time they talk to you that they are hopeless their emotional state can be “fixed,” so focusing on that point will not convince them. Still others can be convinced to check it out for themselves simply by hearing that it is available to them for free. You have to learn to read people and anticipate what will motivate them.

To do this well, you need to know your people personally, truly see what is bothering them, and understand the different ways the EAP can assist.

Step 2: Be Heard

EAPs may be the most widely misunderstood and underutilized benefit available in the United States. It is incumbent on the HR department to perpetually tout the many benefits of the EAP to their employees over and over again because the employees don’t know it is available (no matter how many times you tell them—it just doesn’t stick), the managers forget it is available (they’re employees too, so of course their brains are also Teflon™ to this benefit), and no one ever remembers what all the EAP can do besides the HR department.

If employees or managers know there is an EAP and remember it, they inevitably believe it is a grief counselling service. This is because the most common interaction—and often the only interaction employees have with an EAP—is when a co-worker passes away unexpectedly and HR comes running with EAP brochures, or even brings a counselor on-site to help the employees cope.

All this means that as the HR professional, your job is to never shut up about it. Use humor!  At new hire orientation, “warn” them that any time they come to talk to HR, you will talk about the EAP and what it can do for them. Remind employees and managers alike that the EAP is there if what they are dealing with is good, bad, ugly, or otherwise, because it covers financial, physical, and mental wellness. Give them relatable examples: whether it is stress from planning for your first baby that you are super excited about (yes, all change is stressful, even good change!) or whether you just want more information to help you decide if your uncle has a gambling addiction, the EAP is there to help you.

Here are a few other ways to advertise your EAP.

  • Keep the contact information handy in your phone, so you can text it to an employee during a random hallway discussion that leads you to remind them about the EAP.
  • Keep the EAP in your email contacts, so you can easily attach their business card to emails in which you recommend the EAP.
  • Regularly discuss potential EAP benefits with managers when they express concern for an employee. It may be most effective for the manager to share the EAP with the employee because it can strengthen the trust between them.
  • Advertise benefits of the EAP on flyers, posters, newsletters, company TVs, and in emails to all staff a few times a year.
  • Advertise specific benefits the EAP is offering, such as sweepstakes or live webinars.
  • Offer to assist an employee if they feel overwhelmed by the number of resources the EAP offers. The last thing you want is for them to not be able to find what they are looking for if they do use the benefit.
  • Send links to particular articles, videos, training courses, or other tools directly to an employee after they have expressed specific concerns with you.

This is one of those things you have to shout from the rooftops to be heard.

Step 3: Be Clear about Confidentiality

Trust is inherently incredibly valuable, but these days it is even more valuable for its scarcity. Many people are at least skeptical about providing sensitive information to any kind of organization or institution. Add to that the residual social stigma of needing help of any kind, whether financial assistance or mental illness, and you’ll understand why your employees are reticent to tell you what is going on in their lives and take the risk, as they see it, of talking to a professional about their problems.

They worry that the company will learn they need counseling and treat them differently, that their insurance rates will be increased, or any number of other things that simply are not true. Address these concerns directly and invite employees to ask questions to ensure they understand that the EAP is an entirely separate third party that will never tell the company anything about them at all, whether it is covered under HIPAA or not.

If you can, talk with reluctant employees about the type of reporting the EAP provides. For instance, if the EAP provides information that 30% of participants are covered dependents or that 119 employees have enrolled in counselling services YTD, it is helpful for the employee to understand that others are safely using the program and that the company is not provided with deeper details than this.

As always, disclosure of threat of harm to self or others generally must be reported. Local laws vary on what qualifies, but be clear with your employees what may require you or the EAP to take action.

Step 4: Be Vulnerable

If you can, be prepared to speak to employees about ways you have personally used the EAP. (You have, haven’t you? After all, you’ve read about all the ways they can help you even when you are perfectly happy.) Opening up to an employee about your use of the EAP will in turn make them more likely to trust both you and the EAP. Failing that, speak to ways others have used the EAP without breaking confidentiality—but this won’t be nearly as persuasive as showing vulnerability yourself.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Employee Assistance Programs

Is an Employee Assistance Program mandatory?
No, there are no federal or state regulations requiring establishment and use of an Employee Assistance Program at the time of this writing in 2021. While it is not mandatory, it is popular. The Workplace Outcome Suite© (WOS) Annual Report 2020 (https://wellbeing.lifeworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WOS-annual-report-2020-part1-.pdf) reports that “31% of small employers had an EAP in year 2019; followed by 66% of medium size companies and 84% of larger size companies. Almost eight of every 10 public sector employers had an EAP as well (78%). However, across all types and sizes of employers in the United States, only about half had an EAP in 2019 (54%).”
What is the role of Human Resources regarding EAPs?
If your company does not have an EAP, be the driving force for setting one up, even if it is internal to the company and managed by existing staff. Something is better than nothing in this area. If your company has an EAP, HR is the advocate and often the conduit of information on EAP. Be a non-stop EAP recommendation machine for your staff. If you are doing it right, they will interrupt your flow because they remember the last time you talked to them about it. EAP should be as common of a topic of conversation with you as the company’s values and mission.
Angela Livingston

Angela Livingston

Angela Livingston, SHRM-CP, MBA has nearly a decade of HR experience in high regulated, high tech companies that are Federal Contractors and supported people in other states. She’s worked for an international company with ~20K US employees that did a lot of immigration work, and she’s worked for a company with ~3500 US employees that doesn’t support work visas. One constant is that she’s always working with people empathetically with an eye on integrity.

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