Research on employee assistance programmes suggests they are valued by employees, but employers are not yet gaining all the potential benefits. Dr Zofia Bajorek and Andrew Kinder explain the findings.
Every employee needs a release valve for the pressures that are mounting from digital working and modern life in general. This is why employee assistance programmes (EAPs) – the provision of professional and independent advice – are gaining in significance as a standard part of workplace life. Or are they?
We carried out research among 88 UK employers in September 2016 to find out how the use of EAPs among organisations is evolving. We asked: why are EAPs being used and how? And do organisations know how to get the most from them?
There was a perception among respondents that employees saw the EAP as an “insurance policy” or a “back-up” for when an issue arose, and would use if they knew it was there. In this sense, managers reported that they thought, for the majority of employees, an EAP was of little perceived importance. However, anecdotal feedback suggested that once the service had been used, it was of great value.
More on employee assistance programmes
“You never know that you really need it until the time comes. It is probably one of the best wellbeing programmes that we have, but whether or not anybody else feels like that depends on if they have needed to use it,” said one respondent.
The majority (84%) of organisations surveyed have “comprehensive” EAPs in place, which include telephone services, online services and face-to-face counselling. Almost a quarter (23%) have an EAP telephone helpline and online services in place, with a number of respondents confirming they have the option to pay for additional face-to-face counselling, if it was required.
A small number (14%) of organisations opted solely for telephone counselling, and 6% had an EAP as part of their insurance policy. The most frequent methods of contacting the service are through telephone helplines (84%), with 16% accessing the EAP online. Respondents reported a large degree of difference when it comes to EAP usage, with levels ranging between 2.5% and 16%. Many managers were concerned their EAP was not used enough, and organisations where the use was higher highlighted the importance of having the service, as it was evidently filling a wellbeing gap.
Respondents were asked how their current EAP usage compared to previous years: 6% indicated use had reduced; 22% reported it had increased; and 72% said their usage levels had not changed.
More than one in 10 (12%) organisations surveyed admitted to not investing in an EAP. The most common reason for this was a lack of information about EAPs (44%), followed by the organisations already using other wellbeing practices or initiatives (33%).
One in five respondents (22%) cited cost as a reason for not having one, and when asked what might persuade them to implement a programme, respondents reported that evidence of their effectiveness was clearly needed, that is their financial cost-effectiveness (33%) and evidence that they improve wellbeing and productivity (33%).
When the research questioned HR managers about the top issues that their employees present to their EAP with, workplace stress was the most common (70%). Other issues included: depression (57%); family events (56%); difficulties with line managers (20%); workplace restructure (15%); and bullying (6%).
“Reporting the top three issues can be misleading, because some people will say upfront that the issue is work related. However, when it is uncovered it actually turns out to be a relationship issue – maybe something socially, or relationships within the family,” said one HR manager.
Line managers have an important role in organisations to develop a positive employment relationship with those who report to them, to assist in employee personal development, and to be aware of the health and wellbeing of those they manage.
The research indicated that EAPs are an important resource for managerial information, where managers can contact an EAP to ask for support regarding how to manage issues in the workplace (68%), management consultation (49%), and management information on employee and organisational interventions (44%).
As valuable as line managers are to promote the programmes, HR managers did note the limitations of this. In one instance, a line manager was asked to hand out leaflets to team members, but instead these were left on a table for employees to take, if they wanted. Another participant highlighted that although line managers were in the prime position for promotion, they had extensive workloads, and that adding an extra task was not ideal.
One of the commonly cited reasons why employees did not use their EAP was due, in some way, to service promotion, particularly when staff were not aware of the EAP or the scope of services and support on offer.
HR managers also highlighted difficulties in positioning EAPs as more than a support line for those with mental health issues and offering solely counselling solutions.
They acknowledged that the strong connection between EAPs and mental health was evident, with HR managers inferring that the service was often mentioned when employees were about to take time off sick, and realised that they “may not get to promote the other services as much as they would like”.
Two-thirds (60%) of respondents admitted they evaluate the impact of their EAP, 31% indicated they did not measure the quality, and 9% did not know.
There were a number of methods through which organisations measured service quality, with the most common being staff ratings (59%), the number of closed cases (56%) and sickness absence (37%).
The majority of those interviewed as part of the research reported that any evaluation was probably more “ad hoc” in its approach, and was heavily reliant in the quarterly feedback forms and meetings that they had with their service provider. Only 9% of respondents admitted to conducting a return-on-investment analysis of their EAP, while 86% had not, and 5% did not know. None of those interviewed conducted any financial evaluation, and there were a variety of responses as to why this was the case.
The most common reason was that managers were under no pressure by their senior managers or finance directors to provide evidence of cost-effectiveness of return on investment.
In many cases, having an EAP was seen as the “right thing to do”, and cost was therefore not a point of interest.
Although the organisations did not conduct any financial evaluations, phrases such as “we use EAPs because they are cost-effective” or “EAPs are cheap” were often cited as benefits to the service.
When questioned about financial evaluation, a number of HR managers indicated this was something that could be done, or should be done, in the future, especially as other organisational programmes were more comprehensively evaluated. One manager, for example, recognised that conducting a cost-benefit analysis or a return on investment would make a stronger business case for EAPs and help their organisation consider providers.
However, they acknowledged that even if that happened, the CEO would still insist that having an EAP was not data or financially driven, but a service that was needed to help staff when they wanted to use it.
Getting more out of EAPs
The major finding from the research has been the missed opportunity around EAPs. They have great potential as a wider service for wellbeing and engagement, tackling issues that affect organisational performance and productivity as a whole.
The company set up to run new London rail services, MTR Crossrail, is one example of an organisation actively trying to get more from its EAP.
“We don’t wait for a crisis to occur. It’s very much promoted as a family service for everyone to use, for anything that anyone’s concerned about,” says Alison Bell, HR director at MTR Crossrail.
“It might be someone who’s wondering why they’re feeling more stressed than they might usually; worried about moving house; getting married; or finding care support for an older member of the family.”
In practical terms, it means rethinking when managers and their line reports should be using the services available.
It should not be the last resort, but a more natural source of support around everyday concerns at home and in work, such as help with managing finances, dealing with relationship issues at work, giving up smoking, overcoming periods of stress, and generally helping to stay feeling healthy and positive.
Managers at all levels should be encouraged to play a more active role in promoting what the EAP actually is.
They need to ensure people know that the service is there primarily for prevention, as a way of avoiding situations that can spiral into far more serious problems.
It also means thinking about the language used around the EAP, being clear it’s not only about counselling.
A huge step forward will be to start measuring the financial impact.
There is more scope for demonstrating how your use of the service is saving the business money – simply in terms of calculating the number of cases referred, the potential for absence, and forecasting the savings from what was avoided by comparison with sickness absence and other impacts on management time.
The EAP should form part of a virtuous circle by integrating the service into wider health and wellbeing strategies, tracking impact and justifying ongoing investment and attention to the role of both physical and mental wellbeing.
Although EAPs are already successfully helping individuals to cope, they need to proactively support the organisation, whether it’s tackling a culture of long hours, the glass ceiling or a hotspot of bullying and harassment, and give employers the data, resources and support to bring down these barriers to performance and productivity.
Dr Zofia Bajorek is a researcher at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation, and Andrew Kinder is chairman of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. The report, “The evolution of employee assistance: investigating the use, impact and reach of EAPs in today’s organisations”, can be downloaded here.