How can HR and OH teams ensure that they are getting the most value from their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)? Through EAP evaluation and a better understanding of their programme usage, argues Paul Roberts.
EAPs are now widespread in the UK with nearly half the working population having access to one. In fact, the number of programmes on offer has tripled since 2005 according to a survey by the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) in 2013.
During this time, EAPs have established an important role in supporting the mental health of the nation, enabling employees to access free, confidential advice, information and support at any time of the day or night on issues that have the potential to affect their performance and attendance in the workplace.
EAP evaluation resources
As the EAP market has grown, it has inevitably become more competitive, with increasing demands put on suppliers to compete on price. Along with this, HR and OH teams have come under pressure to demonstrate the return on investment of their EAP and, as a result, employers want to know how to get more from their programme.
When you commissioned your EAP, did you establish performance targets for it – either internally or with your provider? Was there a key group of employees that you wanted to reach, or a specific budget that you needed to adhere to? And what key success measures did you agree on?
It is likely that the answers to these questions will depend on the type of EAP model that you opted for – after all, not all EAPs are created equal.
It may be that you selected a “full EAP” model that combines 24-hour telephone support, assessment and counselling, account management and online services. Or you may have commissioned a telephone and online service where face-to-face counselling is not incorporated in the programme or provided by local services.
Key facts on EAPs
What does a typical EAP “user” look like?
Typically, women access EAP services more than men by phone. More often than not, women contact their EAP during the day, whereas men use online services and instant messaging. An EAP is as useful to a new worker as it is to an employee who is reaching retirement. An employer operating on a single site generally has usage higher than a multi-site employer and it is thought this is due to word-of-mouth promotion and personal interactions.
Factors that can drive EAP utilisation
The visibility of an EAP within the workplace and its accessibility for employees is key for a good return on investment – after all, usage will only be inspired and encouraged among individuals if they are aware of the service in the first place.
And there are three key ways that employers can keep the EAP promoted and in the minds of employees:
- Promote the EAP service at regular intervals: good practice is to send communications to employees regularly with a short topical message backed up by the access points and EAP helpline number.
- Establish a variety of touch points: recognise that employees can be prompted to use the EAP at different times, so link up with OH, relevant insurance policies and other employee benefits to help prompt employees and remind them of the confidential service and support that is available to them. Also consider including EAP contact details to key HR or OH template letters and email footers to help keep the service at the front of employees’ minds.
- Promote the key messages: the range of EAP services has expanded widely, yet the main reason that employees contact an EAP is for emotional support. To drive utilisation, it helps to promote the services most sought after by the employee audience. Case studies can bring the service to life and help to reduce the stigma of taking the first step to improving mental health.
Understand the evaluation methods of your EAP provider
EAPs have become a vital part of an employer’s toolkit to support and nurture the physical and mental health of its employees. Their focus on early intervention and enabling employees to resolve day-to-day issues that can affect their productivity and performance at work – as acknowledged by the Government’s “Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence report” (Black and Frost, 2011) – has helped to position EAPs as vital to the health of organisations and their employees.
As the number of organisations commissioning EAP services has grown, along with the number and variety of providers, the employee assistance market has become more complex. It is important to remember that no one measure that an EAP provider uses to demonstrate the usage or impact of EAP services is wrong.
The critical issue here is for parts of organisations – specifically HR and OH teams, as well as those involved in procurement – to understand the measures and evaluation used by your provider. When you review your EAP usage reports, be clear about what it is telling you, what each measure counts for and what this means in the context of your own organisation.
Ultimately, because not all EAPs are equal, it pays to know what you have when it comes to evaluation, particularly when you are auditing, reviewing or tendering for employee assistance services.
Alternatively, your EAP may be “embedded” within another service or insurance policy and, if this is the case, the scope of services and support provided to employees will vary widely between suppliers. Often the services are restricted and management reporting is limited, if available at all.
Depending on the type of EAP that you have in place, the way it is structured and promoted to employees will differ, as will the way its impact and reach among employees is evaluated.
Motivation influences evaluation
The many different types of EAP on the market mean that the measures of success are also extremely varied and will differ widely between providers and programmes.
This is one of the key reasons why it is important to think back to when your EAP was commissioned (or what is happening now within your organisation if you are thinking about commissioning an EAP at the moment) and reflect on your motivation for putting a programme in place. The factors driving your EAP investment will play a large part in defining the measures that you put in place to review its success and impact.
If your EAP focus is on counselling –either offering counselling services on the phone or face-to-face, to pick up the pieces post event and ensure employees are supported and well looked after day or night – your measure of success will be the counselling services provided, good employee feedback and a relatively small number of
Alternatively, if your EAP focus is on employee wellbeing – driving employee engagement with mental and physical health messages, tips and quizzes and eye-catching programme detail and support – your measure of success is more likely to be the usage count, the activity undertaken as part of the EAP, the number of online interactions with employees and wellbeing promotions throughout the year. Some EAPs also now have health risk assessment tools built into them and, with enough users, can report on the corporate health of employees.
Increasing online utilisation
Even before EAPs became heavily dependent on online resources, there were numerous ways of evaluating programmes. The EAP Market Watch Report (EAPA, 2013) indicates that, as a benchmark, a high usage figure within the industry is considered to be 16% when counting all service interactions – that is, online EAP delivery as well as telephone helplines.
But online usage is the fastest area of growth for EAPs and this is set to continue as accessibility improves, investment from EAPs increases and faith in the confidentiality of online EAPs holds up. So, for the EAP industry, online support has become a key area of differentiation between providers and a factor that those commissioning services should be aware of.
Some providers will, for example, allow online EAP content to be open access to everyone and therefore will not record usage. In contrast, other providers may count every web click or view as a separate interaction. Such a variation alone can account for a good proportion of all utilisation and a high variation when comparing the value delivered by the EAP service.
No two EAPs are the same
The following example serves as a reminder that no two organisations are alike and therefore no two measurements of programme usage (and arguably success) will be identical.
Emma telephones her EAP on five separate occasions about her personal relationship and money worries and receives information from the helpline about these issues without referral for telephone or face-to-face counselling.
How do you measure her usage of this EAP? As you might suspect, the answer to this question is not straightforward and this EAP interaction can potentially be recorded differently, depending on the provider that delivers it:
- Should you record each call as a separate interaction, ie five counts of usage?
- Or should you record the two issues that motivated Emma to call the helpline, ie two counts of usage?
- Or should you record this as one because the calls were made by one employee?
The correct answer, as we have alluded to earlier, depends on your organisation and the way that your EAP provider evaluates, measures and records EAP usage. Although all types of programme are called EAPs, it is an easy option to think that all employers will commission services for similar reasons, but not all programmes will be evaluated the same way.
Provided that you appreciate and understand how your EAP usage is measured, you will be in a strong position to evaluate it and calculate your return on investment.