Employee assistance programmes rated as “high impact, low cost”

Employee assistance programmes - a call centre taking calls from employees

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are effective in supporting staff overcome challenges at work and home in a cost-effective way, a new survey of 156 organisations by XpertHR finds.

Two employers in three (66%) provide access to an EAP and a further 17% are considering doing so. The vast majority (96%) engage a third party to supply the service. The survey finds a healthily competitive marketplace for EAP provision, with 42 different scheme providers mentioned by 86 employers.

Face-to-face counselling can be the most expensive aspect of a programme, but 82% of employers provide it and it is rated as the most effective aspect of an EAP. Nine-tenths (90%) provide telephone counselling and 89% have an advice or information helpline. At three-fifths (60%) of organisations, the EAP acts as a gateway for employees to access specialist help on health, legal or financial issues.

The biggest change since XpertHR’s previous EAP research in 2009 was an increased use of online resources – a feature of 79% of EAPs in 2014, compared with 51% in 2009. However, web-based services were the aspect of EAP schemes most likely to be rated ineffective and needing improvement by employers in the survey. The average annual cost of running an EAP was £14.85 per employee, and when asked how costs has changed since the scheme was introduced, the majority (65%) stated that it has stayed the same, with 20% reporting an increase and 15% a decrease.

One of the challenges of EAPs can be low take-up and awareness among staff. The average annual usage was 8%, although more than one employer in 10 (11%) reported that 20% or more of their employees made use of an EAP annually.

Asked to rate the cost-effectiveness of their EAP, two-thirds (66%) of employers said that it completely or partially justified its cost. Not a single employer stated that it did “not justify its cost at all”. The majority (89%) reported experiencing no problems with their schemes, but those that did cited low take-up and poor reporting from the provider as issues.

When asked for evidence of the impact of employee assistance programmes, some employers considered that a scheme had directly helped to decrease absence (especially when related to stress or bereavement). Others cited the importance of support in helping to turn around the situation for an employee where there are disciplinary or performance problems.

It can be a challenge to measure the impact of an EAP or disentangle its impact from other health or wellbeing initiatives. One employer stated: “The EAP is a useful tool from the perspective of being an ’employer of choice’ and demonstrating supportive practices; whether it delivers a tangible benefit is unclear.” However, many employers in the survey offered examples of individual employees for whom the independent, confidential support available via an EAP had been a key factor in either getting back to work or feeling engaged and motivated at work. One employer’s verdict on employee assistance programmes was: “High impact, low cost. It would be remiss of organisations not to consider their use.”

Sarah Welfare

About Sarah Welfare

Sarah is director of Work & Pay Research. A former HR practice editor on XpertHR, she has previously worked for organisations including Industrial Relations Services, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the CBI.
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