Employee assistance programmes are a lifeline for your business

Employee assistance programmes offer tangible benefits to employees and the organisations they work for, and are becoming ever more attractively priced, reports Virginia Matthews.

Forget fears over corporate paternalism or the blurring of the line between home and work. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) – offering confidential telephone or face-to-face counselling for a range of issues from inflated gas bills to unfaithful husbands – are here to stay, and they are down in price.

Despite the rather archaic name for the service and a lack of awareness among organisations and even HR of what it offers, EAP providers – none of which yet outsource overseas – are already helping between 20% and 30% of the UK workforce concentrate on their job, rather than their bad back or their teenage son’s GCSE problems. While they will not necessarily protect employers against legal action, they demonstrate recognition of the duty of care.

Recent statistics offered by EAP provider Bupa Wellness suggest that relationship problems are the number one issue, followed by stress, anxiety, bereavement and depression. And 98% of EAP users say their employer should retain the service and the same number would use the service again, while 99% would recommend the service to a colleague.

Non-taxable benefit

While a small number of EAP schemes – which remain a non-taxable benefit at present – offer telephone-only advice, most also include up to six counselling sessions per employee, and include family members.

Fierce competition among providers has seen prices drop from an average £28 per head per year five years ago to just £14 now, and reports of an astonishing £1 a head cover are gaining credence. Average take-up among staff hovers around the 10% mark.

Although it is important to note that the unbiased information/advice/counselling service on offer aims to provide a short-term solution for financial, legal or emotional problems, not a long-term answer to serious physical or mental distress, practitioners claim that they are already significantly reducing sickness absence and improving productivity.

Sarah Maddox, HR manager at transport group National Express, outlines the benefits to her organisation.

“We wanted to provide something that would support all levels of staff, but was one step removed from the business so they could build trust in it,” she says. “One of our biggest successes has been with a young junior manager whose health problems were causing problems at home and making her very tearful and distressed. Face-to-face counselling helped sort out her priorities, and while the health issues are long-term, she is now coping far better.”

Valuable assets

Adrienne Heeley is head of work-life services at Right Corecare, the National Express EAP provider. She believes that, in most cases, “simply having an EAP gives the nod to staff that they are the most valuable asset an organisation has”.

She claims that they not only reduce risk in specific ‘red flag’ situations – where an employee is in imminent danger of either self-harm or harming others – but, more generally, alert HR to potential problems.

“Our clients have a heightened awareness of when stress is becoming strain and can often assess what is going wrong in a department before absence levels start to rise.”

Tim Cuthell, consultancy and sales director at Employee Advisory Resource, which provides EAP services, stresses that, far from adding to the workload of busy HR professionals, EAP schemes can run themselves.

“Given that these are largely self-referral programmes, it is up to individual HR departments to become as involved or as uninvolved as they wish,” he says. “EAPs give prior warning of trouble spots and help reduce the demotivation that can occur when staff are burdened by personal problems.”

When it comes to return on investment, the case is not yet proven. While EAP providers would be overjoyed to be able to offer incontrovertible evidence of how their schemes reduce absenteeism or boost productivity, Paul Roberts, healthcare adviser to the independent insurance firm IHC, says this is not yet possible.

“The issues surrounding absence leave are complex and varied, and an EAP should not be seen as a quick-fix solution,” he warns.

“I believe that the reduction in cost in recent years has clearly been matched by an increase in the quality of service on offer, but I believe that any employer who demands hard data on what an EAP alone will do for productivity and sickness absence may be disappointed.”

“ROI [return on investment] data is important to this industry, and some very positive signals are starting to come through. But managing people’s expectations about what an EAP alone can provide is also important,” he adds.

Tips on choosing an EAP

  • Make sure you know who you are buying from and who will be handling the day-to-day service. Does the provider offer a direct service with its own trained counsellors or does it outsource to a third party?
  • As the market for EAPs develops, they are being bundled into many different products. Seek advice on the best package for your organisation and be clear about what you are buying into.
  • Pin down precise details. How many hours a day is the telephone service available and can it be accessed from home as well as work? How many face-to-face sessions are available and for how long?
  • If usage slips to below 5% or 6%, something is going wrong. Don’t assume staff know that your EAP is ready and waiting. Research shows that active, regular promotion pushes up usage rates.

You get what you pay for. Is yours just a token telephone service or is it an integral part of the overall HR strategy?

Source: Paul Roberts, healthcare adviser to IHC

Case study: Anthony Nolan Trust

The Anthony Nolan Trust is a high-profile donor service for bone marrow transplant patients. Following a recent period of redundancy, it now employs around 180 people. Last October, it appointed Bupa Wellness to provide an EAP service.

Sarah Woodruff, assistant HR manager at the charity, says the scheme has already paid for itself.

“Our chief executive was very keen on having a support service for staff, and having already had experience of an EAP at Cancer Research UK, I shared the enthusiasm,” she says.

“I was very surprised to find out how cheap it was – £13 per head per year for each member of staff including family members – and also how much it covered. It includes a 24-hour telephone helpline covering consumer issues, debt, legal concerns and family problems, as well as five face-to-face counselling sessions [each] lasting one hour.”

Take up has been between 9% and 10%, and while no user names are passed on to the trust, Woodruff is able to use EAP statistics to keep on top of trends and issues of concern.

Woodruff road tested the service herself before she told colleagues about it, and she now promotes it via monthly e-mails, posters, leaflets and induction packs.

“We call it an ‘advice’ line, rather than a ‘counselling’ service, which we have found can put off male members of staff,” she says.

She adds: “People who have used it think it’s great, and although overall awareness is still pretty low, we see it is an important symbol of our commitment to staff.”

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