Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are reporting a rise in calls from employees with complex and often serious wellbeing concerns. Eugene Farrell unpicks EAP usage data and breaks down what employers need to know.
Rather than any ‘return to normality’ post-pandemic, figures on employee assistance programme usage show record highs.
The average usage figure during 2022 topped 12%, compared with 11.4% the previous year and the typical average from previous years of 10.4%. As a consequence, organisations are reporting more savings (an average of £10.86 per £1.00 spent) in terms of reduced staff absence and gains in productivity.
The data is based on more than 4,100 calculations made via the Employee Assistance Professionals Association UK (EAPA UK) ROI calculator since the beginning of 2019, including more than 1,000 calculations in 2022, representing anonymised information from 11 million employees.
The increasing reliance on EAP support isn’t confined to a particular region of the UK, business sector or type of organisation. The demand is coming from everywhere. And notably, the pattern of calls has changed. Whereas there used to be known peaks on Sunday evenings and Monday mornings, now the volume of calls is maintained throughout the week.
Employee assistance programmes
Data suggest that EAPs specifically may be playing a more significant role in delivering ROI than other more generic wellbeing interventions, including counselling services in particular. There is also a relatively high level of consistency in ROI around the £10.00-£11.00 level: whatever size company, sector, geographic location or service used, an EAP is delivering substantial financial returns.
The relevant data set is small, but a notable trend has been a sudden increase in EAP usage and ROI in more rural locations, and relating to employers in agriculture. For example in Northern Ireland, where ROI jumped from £7.91 to £20.83 (and usage from 10.2% to 21%); Scotland saw ROI go from £8.05 to £14.46 (usage, 10.8% to 13%); and usage in the East of England from 11.4% to 16.7%. The agriculture sector has suddenly seen EAP ROI go from £7.83 to £15.87 (a 5.2% usage leap to 13.5%). This may be the result of a more dispersed workforce, and working from premises where there is an absence of other forms of support, formal or informal.
The largest employers continue to benefit from the biggest returns from their EAP services (those with 5,000 or more staff have seen an ROI of £16.11 in the past year; £18.69 for employers with 1,000 to 4,999 staff). Typically this is the consequence of more resources being devoted to championing the EAP through communications and specific campaigns; having active managers discussing the EAP during one-to-ones with line reports; and using benchmarking (against others nationally, in the same region and same sector, and using data in management reporting and budget discussions).
The majority of calls received by EAPs continue to be due to anxiety and depression. Worryingly, a growing proportion include an element of ‘risk’ to the employee, meaning they are in danger of self-harm or harm of some kind.”
What’s hidden in the headline figures is the nature of the calls. Our members are telling us that EAPs are receiving more complex, longer and more intense calls on a regular basis. They also inform us that there have been significant increases in referrals from GPs due to NHS waiting times for mental health support, which can be more than two years.
The majority of calls received by EAPs continue to be due to anxiety and depression. Worryingly, a growing proportion include an element of ‘risk’ to the employee, meaning they are in danger of self-harm or harm of some kind and need immediate support to ensure their safety.
Given the cost-of-living crisis, there has been a sharp increase in callers asking for advice on finance and debt (especially around utility bills and long-term contracts for services such as smartphones), as well as legal advice around insolvency. And we are seeing only the beginning of the fallout from cost-of-living pressures.
This kind of complexity of cases is a major issue for occupational health teams and HR professionals dealing with wellbeing strategy. There is a need to look again at the range and nature of EAP services: the availability of counselling in particular, the ability of providers to manage ‘at risk’ cases and incidents of trauma, as well as the implications of increasing numbers of employees looking for longer-term support.
EAPs were designed to meet demand for a range of everyday queries and advice, not to act as an emergency mental health service. Evidence from members shows that the UK’s providers are standing up to the test. Services have evolved; delivery has stayed robust. There is more effective triage of cases. Providers are expanding and recruiting successfully, and new initiatives have been launched to train more counselling staff. Digital resources have been adopted where appropriate, but always on the principle that human contact is what makes an EAP so valuable.