Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are reporting surging demand for their services as employees struggle to cope with the cost-of-living crisis, with calls becoming more complex, longer and often more intense.
Worryingly, the data from the Employee Assistance Professionals Association UK (EAPA UK) is pointing to an increasing proportion of calls including an element of ‘risk’ to the employee, such as that they are in danger of self-harm or harm of some kind and/or need immediate support to ensure their safety.
There is also a rising tide of demand for support and advice on finance and debt. This is especially around managing utility bills and long-term contracts for services such as smartphones, but also legal advice around insolvency.
Moreover, the association is warning this is just the beginning of the fallout from cost-of-living pressures. Paul Roberts, EAPA UK board member and research project lead, said: “2023 will be a year of drastic pressures for many more employees.”
The heightened demand comes on the back of demand having also increased during and since the pandemic, with the average usage figure among UK employers now topping 12%, said EAPA UK. This compared with 11.4% last year, and is against a typical average from previous years of 10.4%.
As well as calls becoming complex, longer and more intense on a regular basis, there has been a significant increase in referrals from GPs because of NHS waiting times for access to mental health support.
As one EAPA UK member, Kayleigh Frost, head of clinical support at Health Assured, put it in the report: “In the past year, there has been a 45% increase in the proportion of calls to Health Assured’s EAP services where the safety of the employee is at risk. What we’re seeing is EAPs like ours filling the gaps left by a lack of NHS resources – and we’ve had to adapt to the new challenges and more serious nature of cases being presented.”
Mental health and EAPs
The service had seen a big rise in the number of calls around practical issues relating to finances, such as access to benefits (up 31.2%), rent increases, housing and how to escape long-term contracts for things like smartphones (up 45%).
“Trends are following the same pattern as we had with Covid-19, practical queries to begin with, but then issues relating to emotional impact and mental health will come later in 2023,” Frost added.
It was a similar story at workplace wellbeing provider Spectrum Life, argued chief clinical operations officer Dr Emelina Ellis.
“The past year has been unlike any other. Employers are navigating new territory when it comes to hybrid working demands. At the same time, employees are exercising greater agency and understanding when it comes to their personal wellbeing. They are also experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety, particularly relating to financial difficulties. As a result, employees are utilising their EAP in greater numbers,” she said.
“In the last quarter alone, we’ve seen a 14% increase in incoming EAP calls, with an alarming growth in those experiencing financial challenges (11%) or struggling with work-related stress (32%). We expect these numbers to continue rising over the coming months given the current economic and social climate,” Dr Ellis added.
In the last quarter alone, we’ve seen a 14% increase in incoming EAP calls, with an alarming growth in those experiencing financial challenges (11%) or struggling with work-related stress (32%). We expect these numbers to continue rising,” – Dr Emelina Ellis, Spectrum Life
“We’ve entered a new age of dependency on EAP services,” said EAPA UK’s Roberts. “There’s consistently more volume of calls – whereas there used to be known peaks on Sunday evenings and Monday mornings – now the peaks can come at any time. There’s also more complexity to the nature of cases,” he added.
EAPA UK chair Eugene Farrell said: “EAPs were designed to meet demand for a range of everyday queries and advice – not as an emergency mental health service.
“And yet the UK’s providers are standing up to the test. Services have evolved; delivery has stayed robust. There is more effective triage of cases. Digital resources have been adopted where appropriate, but always on the principle that human contact is what makes an EAP so valuable. Providers are expanding and recruiting successfully; new initiatives have been launched to train more counselling staff. Higher EAP usage is here to stay, for the foreseeable future,” he added.
On the plus side, however, the surging demand was feeding through into ever-more compelling return-on-investment data. Organisations were reporting more savings in terms of reduced staff absence and gains in productivity, saidEAPA UK.
For example, figures from the period October 2021 to October 2022 showed that, for every £1 spent on an EAP in the UK, employers had seen an average ROI of £10.85. This compared with a previous average of £8 in the previous year, and £7.27 in 2019.
The largest employers continue to benefit from the biggest returns, the association added. Those with 5,000 or more staff had seen an ROI of £16.11 in the past year, rising to £18.69 for employers with 1,000 to 4,999 staff.
Typically, this was often where employers devoted more resources to championing their EAP, including more extensive communications, management of services and specific awareness and issue-based campaigns.
The EAPA UK data has been based on information provided by HR professionals using the EAPA UK’s return-on-investment calculator, representing anonymised information from 11 million employees. Around 1,000 calculations were made in the 2022 period.