All You Need to Know About Employee Assistance Programs

If you have employees who need confidential support and counseling, offering an EAP could be a solution.

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Learn about the benefits of EAPs — plus how to structure and monitor one at your company

Sometimes, marital, financial, or emotional issues can be the reasons behind your employees frequently missing work or even having their performance on the job falter.

Maybe your employee has been struggling with depression, or they’re having a hard time managing a parent’s estate after their death. A medical bill dispute could also be causing them stress. Or maybe it’s an alcohol addiction, or the inability to stop smoking when it’s in the best interest of their health.

Often small businesses, and more so those in skilled trades or services, are more susceptible to these types of workplace issues with employees — which can frequently include substance abuse or mental illness, according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

One way to help your employees whose personal life struggles are spilling over onto the workplace is by setting up an Employee Assistance Program.

The basics on Employee Assistance Programs

An EAP is a program that businesses can put in place that offer confidential support and counseling to their employees — plus their spouses and dependents who are dealing with a wide range of personal issues, both outside and inside the workplace. These issues might include anxiety, money problems, substance or alcohol abuse, bullying, or even an issue paying back lofty student loans.

EAPs can offer employees services such as basic legal assistance and referrals, help looking into adoptions or finding elder care services, and assistance with wellness programs.

A third party like a health insurance company or a dedicated EAP provider typically administers these services. Employees receive counseling, support, and guidance over the phone, online, or sometimes even in person by working with a trained counselor through the EAP.

For small businesses without an extensive HR department to develop a variety of policies and different programs to help employees maximize their health and well-being, an EAP can be a good, all-encompassing option to assist employees who are dealing with personal issues. Yet, many small businesses don’t offer their employees an EAP program. According to the United States Bureau of labor Statistics, only 27% of employees who work at small businesses with fewer than 50 workers have access to an EAP program.

Employees receive counseling, support, and guidance over the phone, online, or sometimes even in person by working with a trained counselor through the EAP.

The benefits of EAP programs

The positives of including an EAP program among your offering of employee benefits can be wide-ranging. EAP programs can help to:

  • Lower employee stress
  • Boost morale and productivity
  • Reduce employee turnover rates, disability claims, and workplace accidents, and
  • Ultimately improve a company’s bottom line

One study of more than 60,000 workers found that people who had trouble doing work due to emotional issues showed a 73% productivity improvement rate after they used EAP services.

Financially speaking, the U.S. Department of Labor has noted that for every dollar invested in an EAP, companies typically save anywhere from $5 to $16.

Meantime, the 2020 Annual Report for the Workplace Outcome Suite annual report showed that employees who pursued EAP counseling had marked improvement in areas including work presenteeism, work engagement, workplace distress, work absenteeism, and overall life satisfaction.

Financially speaking, the U.S. Department of Labor has noted that for every dollar invested in an EAP, companies typically save anywhere from $5 to $16.

How to choose an EAP provider

Considerations to keep in mind when choosing an EAP provider include:

Current clients and references. What type of other employers does the EAP provider work with? Does the EAP provider get consistently good reviews?

Scope and delivery of services. What types of issues can the EAP provider help with? Do they offer services that they provide in a variety of ways — over the phone, online and also in person, if needed?

Geographic area. Is the provider able to accommodate employees who live in different cities and states, if that’s how your company is set up?

Service hours. If your employees tend to work off hours, and they’re only available to take advantage of EAP services at night or even over the weekend, can the EAP provider accommodate them?

Response time. How long does it take for the EAP provider to schedule a first counseling session with employees? Is it just a few days to schedule, or does scheduling end up taking a few weeks?

Employee credentials. What type of training has the EAP provider’s workers received? Do they receive regular training and continuing education to keep up-to-date on their knowledge and their skills?

Cost of the program. How much does the EAP provider charge for its services? Costs typically vary based on the number of employees that are covered, how often services are used, and how comprehensive of a program your small business wants.

Ability to make solid referrals. If an employee ends up needing further assistance, can the EAP provider refer them to good alternate resources that are able to help?

Tracking and sharing progress. Does the EAP provider have a specific, streamlined system for keeping track of the services it offers your employees and how your employees have benefitted from the services they’ve sought out?

How to structure your EAP program

Small businesses have a few different ways they can set up an Employee Assistance Program. Most small businesses end up outsourcing their EAP program and they choose from 1 of 3 main options.

These options include:

1) Fee-for-service contracts. With this model, an employee contracts directly with a dedicated EAP provider and only pays when their employees use the service.

2) Fixed-fee contracts. Employers who choose this route pay a fixed fee for EAP services. It is typically based on the number of their employees.

3) Consortia. With a consortia, small businesses will band together in order to contract for their EAP services. Often, doing this can lower the cost per employee of providing EAP services for each company that’s involved. Small businesses of different types can come together through a consortia, and the model often tends to be a fixed-fee one.

The Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) guidelines say that all EAPs should all have:

  • Written policies that state the scope of the service and ensure client confidentiality
  • Enough trained employee assistance professionals
  • Formal procedures for following up with employees who use the EAP

For small businesses that outsource their EAP program, but also have an HR person on staff, the HR employee typically helps to coordinate with the EAP provider and stays in close contact. The HR person will often help to select the EAP vendor, to manage the relationship, and then to keep track of EAP data and results, making changes to the program as needed.

Potential services to include in an EAP

Small businesses can pick and choose which services they want to include in their EAP program. Some of the most popular services to include in an EAP program include:

Mental health/counseling sessions. These could include short-term telehealth visits or even in-person sessions.

Crisis intervention. Some companies decide to offer these services, which can include talking to a mental health professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Wellness training. Employees can learn more about how to improve their health through exercise, nutrition and by working to improve their sleep habits.

Legal consultations. These might include guidance for employees who are involved in a personal legal dispute, such as a divorce, child custody proceedings, or any other type of lawsuit.

Adoption guidance. Some EAP programs offer help to individuals or to couples who are looking to adopt a child.

Elder care help. Guidance here might include choosing the right care facility for an aging parent, or finding the best type of in-home care.

Substance abuse issues. Most EAPs will offer help dealing with issues including alcohol or drug abuse.

Smoking cessation information. EAPs can help employees who are looking to stop smoking find the best resources to help them quit.

Financial help and planning. EAP professionals can help with questions ranging from saving for children’s college expenses to buying a home to retirement planning.

Healthcare disputes. Employees faced with surprise medical bills from a provider that they believe to be incorrect can harness the help of an EAP specialist.

Developing your EAP materials

As you plan your EAP program, it’s important to have the right materials in place. You want to properly explain the program, its benefits, and how employees can best access it.

Some employees may worry that accessing the EAP program could negatively impact their careers. They might be more likely to use your EAP program when they’ve been reassured that the process is completely confidential. Make sure to highlight that feature in any program materials that you develop and present to your employees.

You’ll want to ensure confidentiality and reassure your workers their information will be kept private. You could suggest employees access the programs on their own personal devices rather than using a company phone or laptop.

It’s a good idea to train leaders at your company on the ins and outs of your EAP program so they’re fully aware of the benefit and how it can help your employees.

Communicate often about your EAP benefit; employees may not fully pay attention unless they end up needing a specific service. Good times to review your EAP program with workers can be during employees orientation and open enrollment each year.

It’s a good idea to train leaders at your company on the ins and outs of your EAP program so they’re fully aware of the benefit and how it can help your employees. That way, they’re better positioned to be able to recognize when employees are having an issue that may benefit from the help of the EAP program.

Accessing your EAP services

Once you’ve put a solid EAP program in place, there are several ways for an employee to access the benefit. The main 3 ways to access an EAP program include:

1) Self-referral. In this case, the employee, a spouse, or a dependent has a specific problem or issue they want assistance with and they seek out the service directly.

2) Colleague referral. A fellow employee speaking casually with their coworker about an issue they’re having may recommend the EAP program if they’ve used the service in the past and have benefitted from it.

3) Management referral. Sometimes, a manager or HR professional may become aware of an employee who needs assistance and recommend the program to them. In some instances, a manager might mention the program to a worker who has poor performance or has been disciplined at work.

In this case, a manager might discuss the work performance issue with the EAP counselor first. Later, after counseling, and only with a signed release from the employee, the EAP may be able to provide limited feedback to the manager.

Monitoring your EAP program

Once your program is up and running, you’ll want to work closely with your EAP provider to monitor results. Ask your provider for reports and data so you can evaluate how well the program has been received.

It’s also a good idea to regularly ask your employees about their experiences with the EAP. You can do this during any employee survey or when you’re asking for feedback. You may find that your program could better suit your employees’ needs if you were to subtract one service and then add another instead.

While an EAP program is indeed another added expense for a small business, it can be a wise investment. Starting an EAP at your company will show your employees that you care about their health and well-being. It can result in multiple benefits for workers too, including higher morale, less stress, and fewer accidents at work. At the same time, it can help to cut back on missed days of work and boost your bottom line.

Many small business owners do find that an EAP program is well worth the investment. Offering one can ultimately result in happier employees and increase a company’s appeal as an employer.

Check out our People Ops Podcast episode “3 Easy Ways to Foster Financial Wellness at Your Small Business.”

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