Everything You Need to Know About Employee Assistance Programs

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Amid the employee burnout crisis, employee assistance programs can provide real relief. Here’s everything you need to know to provide this benefit.

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NOTE: This article is intended to inform our readers about business-related concerns in the United States. It is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to endorse a specific course of action. For advice on your specific situation, consult your legal counsel.

Despite record-low unemployment and modest wage growth, the U.S. workforce is not OK. Two-thirds of full-time workers say they’re burned out, and those who aren’t are struggling in other ways. One in five has a diagnosed mental illness, while substance abuse issues at work continue to be an issue.

Some might react to that by saying: “These are personal issues, so what can reasonably be expected of employers? Is it even their responsibility to intervene?

But when mental health issues cost U.S. companies $200 billion and 400 million lost work days a year, it’s clear companies need to do something (if not out of the kindness of their hearts, then out of a desire to retain a competitive workforce).

That “something” is an employee assistance program (EAP): A proven initiative employers of every shape and size should implement to support employee mental health.

Whether you have no idea what an employee assistance program is or have one but are struggling to get employees to use it, you’re in the right place. Let’s answer some common questions about this increasingly important resource.

What is an employee assistance program?

 ANSWER:  An employee assistance program is a voluntary employee benefit that helps workers with problems impacting their mental and emotional well-being.

Prepaid by employers and made available to employees at no cost, employee assistance programs provide workers with on-demand assessments, counseling, specialist referrals, and follow-up services to help with personal or work-related problems affecting their job performance.

As an employer, the two most important characteristics to keep in mind with employee assistance programs are that they are confidential and short-term.

Confidential in the sense that participation and results are not shared with employers by the EAP provider in order to protect employees, and short-term in the sense that they aren’t intended as a substitute for long-term care.

What are examples of employee assistance programs?

 ANSWER:  Employee assistance program can help with problems with your boss and problems at home.

Originally formed in the 1930s to deal with occupational alcoholism, employee assistance programs have expanded over the years to help workers with a variety of issues.

The scope will vary from company to company, but here are some examples of things employee assistance programs can support:

  • Substance abuse
  • Occupational stress or burnout
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Family problems (e.g., divorce, domestic violence)
  • Wellness and nutrition
  • Crisis management
  • Retirement planning

Really, any issue that is causing employees mental or emotional distress is fair game with an EAP.

What are some employee assistance program benefits for employers?

 ANSWER:  Increased productivity and retention, lower insurance costs, and more.

For workers, employee assistance programs can be a much-needed outlet to seek help. But there are benefits to employers who implement employee assistance programs too, such as:

  • Increased productivity. Workers with depressive symptoms are more likely to be absent due to illness or accidents, and even when they are at work, they can be checked out (a phenomenon known as presenteeism). EAPs can give these workers the help they need so they can be back at full productivity.
  • Greater retention. Eighty-six percent of employees now believe a company’s culture should support mental health. It’s a make-or-break issue for many, especially younger workers. An EAP is a signal that you’re listening and that you care, which—in turn—can aid recruiting and retention efforts.
  • Lower insurance costs. Just as employer-sponsored biometric screenings can detect early signs of disease, EAPs can also catch the beginnings of larger issues that would have ended up costing you a lot more down the line.
  • Lightening the burden for managers. Managers aren’t necessarily equipped with the skills to help their employees in the case of something traumatic, like a death in the family. Implementing an EAP can give your managers a resource to rely on in difficult situations.

Are there any employee assistance program laws I should be aware of?

 ANSWER:  Yes, as the scope of your program could affect coverage requirements.

There are certain laws you have to follow with your employee assistance program.

As an example, if your EAP provides services intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent a health condition, it falls under the COBRA definition of a group health plan, which would mean you would need to continue EAP coverage for up to 36 months after an employee has been terminated. On the other hand, if you only provide referral services, this doesn’t apply.

And if an employee makes a threat or assaults another worker, for example, can you mandate EAP participation as a stipulation for them to return to work? While there’s no law preventing you from doing so, you need to be careful and make sure the requirement is purely job-related to avoid the appearance of disability discrimination. In other words: You can’t mandate EAP participation because you believe a worker has a mental illness.

Lastly, as mentioned in our first answer, it’s important that EAPs only provide short-term assistance. Long-term support would make EAPs subject to Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliance. The Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) has a great write-up on other laws you should know about, including those at the state level.

How do I start an employee assistance program?

 ANSWER:  Evaluate providers, select a point person, and create a policy explanation.

According to the latest numbers on EAPs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about half of all U.S. employees (54%) have access to an employee assistance program. If you’re looking to provide this benefit to your workers, here’s what you need to know.

First, talk to your current health insurance provider. Cigna, for example, offers employee assistance program support to companies. If your provider doesn’t offer these services, reach out to other vendors to discuss their offerings. The cost will typically depend on the scope of the program and the size of your business.

Once you’ve landed on an EAP provider that you like, elect someone to be your EAP point person on-site (likely your HR manager), then type up an EAP policy explanation to give to new hires during onboarding and post on the company intranet for reference.

How do I encourage employee assistance program participation?

 ANSWER:  Constantly remind workers it’s there, give employees easier access, and leverage your advocates.

Just because you offer an employee assistance program doesn’t mean your employees will use it when they should, let alone know it exists. In a Capterra survey of burned-out employees, only one in five said their employer offered EAP services—a stark contrast to the 54% who actually have access, according to the BLS.

Chart showing only 1 in 5 burned out workers say they have access to an employee assistance program (EAP).

Here are some tips to encourage participation:

  • Run frequent campaigns to promote awareness. If the only time a worker heard about your EAP was during onboarding, they might not remember it’s there. Continuous reminders to your workforce that you offer this free, confidential service—even through email—can catch them at the times they need it most.
  • Give employees discreet means to seek help. Admitting you need help is hard, especially when doing it face-to-face with your employer. Leveraging a benefits administration solution—where employees can explore their options more discreetly through their computer or phone—can encourage usage.
  • Find your advocates. Having a department head or other leader tell their story about how an EAP helped them can reduce the stigma around mental health in your workplace, and give employees the signal that it’s an acceptable resource to take advantage of.
  • Surround your EAP with other wellness benefits. Receiving therapy may be too big of a first step for some. Employees might be more inclined to take advantage of wellness resources if you start small with things like yoga classes or health screenings. Here are some other creative wellness options to inspire you.

Where can I find more resources like this one?

EAPs, while beneficial, are just one piece in solving the puzzle of supporting employee mental health. A comprehensive plan tackling benefit offerings, workload management, and feedback mechanisms is needed if companies want to make any progress on this important front.

If you’re interested in other resources about employee mental health or providing employee benefits, start here:


To collect this data, we administered an online survey to 517 full-time employees at U.S. businesses who said they were burned out in their current job. Responses were collected in October 2019.

Looking for Talent Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Talent Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Brian Westfall

Brian Westfall is a Senior HR and Talent Management Analyst for Capterra. His research has been cited in various publications, including TIME, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Undercover Recruiter.

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