When you start a new job, there’s the traditional explanation of your benefit package, which often includes access to a service called an employee assistance program (EAP).
EAPs are designed to help you cope with life struggles such as substance abuse and mental illness that may have an impact on your job performance. In this way, they directly tackle productivity issues.
The Society for Human Resource Management describes an EAP as a “work-based intervention program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems (e.g., marital, financial or emotional problems; family issues; substance/alcohol abuse) that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance.”
The expectation is that your productivity and attendance will improve, allowing managers and supervisors to focus on work performance without also having to deal with your personal problems.
Essentially, EAPs are counseling services offered free-of-charge to employees but paid for by employers. The service is usually also offered to your dependents. The vast majority of businesses offer EPAs through independent contractors, mostly those who specialize in that particular service. The counselors are almost always clinical psychologists.
Confidentiality is key. Your employer is not notified when you seek help through the company EAP, so you don’t have to worry about repercussions that might occur because of a “black mark” on your work record.
When asked who is responsible for the EAP, 66 percent of employers said the benefits department, and 36 percent have human resources manage it, according to the National Business Group on Health (NBGH).
The NBGH says among EAP services offered, 95 percent enable telephone access, 88 percent include in-person visits, and 64 percent include the internet.
For your employer, having an EAP amounts to prevention. By offering you a service that can intervene before your problems escalate and your job performance worsens, your employer can head off a potentially debilitating problem.
In addition, your employer hopes the EAP will reduce absenteeism, job turnover and, perhaps, the cost of employee health insurance by addressing stress that can cascade into physical problems. Many companies now offer combination EAP or wellness programs.
A guide by the NBGH says some employers are “experiencing large increases in absence rates due to the growing number of claims for short- and long-term disability and family medical leave.”
“Stress is a major concern for employers and managers, and mental health and substance-use conditions continue to be a leading cause of illness and lost productivity for most employers.”
There are many reports that claim EAPs do help employees with their problems and offer a high quality of service, yet other reports say such services are underused.
Three percent of employees used their employer's EAP counseling services in 2012, according to a report by EAP Technology Systems Inc., a Yreka, Calif.-based EAP analytics company.
Another report by New York-based Towers Watson & Co. found that while 85 percent of employers offer stress management services within their EAP, only 5 percent of employees had used those services.
Citing those numbers, Business Insurance.com says EPAs work by reducing the impact of depression, workplace stress, and other “mental health problems.
“There are really four reasons why employees don’t use EAP,” writes business administration expert Steve Albrecht in Psychology Today.
“They don’t think it’s confidential; they feel there is a stigma for reaching out for help (especially for some men, who see this as a weakness); they think they have to ask permission from their boss or HR; or they don’t know it exists.”
Sally Kirkright, CEO of AccessEAP, believes the reasons for a low user rate are a lack of employee awareness and a continued stigma associated with issues of mental health.
She agrees that employees are often suspect of the confidentiality and adds that while many employers want to offer EAPs as part of the employee benefit package, they don’t promote it enough.
If your company offers an EPA, don’t ignore it. Independent companies that offer it ensure its confidentiality. If it’s the stigma attached to mental health issues that keeps you from using it, try to get past it.
Millions of people seek counseling every year for mental health issues, although many Americans avoid treatment. This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s always better to catch a problem early on. It’s easier to deal with and quicker to heal. The longer you wait, the more personal issues will spread into other areas of your work and personal life.
Albrecht says he used EPA counseling while in law enforcement and found it useful for “those things I saw in the field that I don’t want to see again, especially in my dreams.”
“I tell the participants in my training classes that I’ve used EAP and I emphasize that it’s okay to reach out for help,” he adds. “We need to remind our employees that no reports come back to the organization and that there is no external record of their use of the EPA.”
December 30, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA