Employee assistance programs

How an employee assistance program benefits employees

There’s a reason why employee assistance programs (EAPs) have become such a popular part of benefits packages for employers and employees alike. (According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2019 Employee Benefits Survey, 79 percent of employers reported offering an EAP.)

An EAP can give your employees efficient, confidential access to tailored resources, which makes them a great way to help employees stay at work and remain productive.

After all, no one exists in a vacuum. Your employees will inevitably face distracting personal problems and responsibilities during their tenure at your company. And while you may wish that employees could just ignore these things once they enter the office, that’s not always possible. 

What is an employee assistance program?

An EAP provides:

  • Counseling and consultation services for many work and home-life topics
  • Connection with customized resources
  • Referrals to specialized professionals, including:
    • Attorneys
    • Financial advisors
    • Psychologists or psychiatrists
    • Therapists
    • Nutritionists
    • Other clinicians

EAPs support employees dealing with varying degrees of challenges:

Employee assistance program benefits

For employers, EAPs reduce stress and personal distractions within their workforce, which can contribute to:

  • Decreased absenteeism
  • Reduced accidents and fewer workers’ compensation claims
    • Employees who seek assistance or support may be less likely to become injured through inattention resulting from distracting personal issues.
  • Greater employee retention
  • Fewer disputes between employees
    • Employees who seek assistance or support may be less likely to engage in disputes with coworkers when areas of stress are sufficiently addressed through the EAP process.
  • Minimized impact on productivity and performance

Additionally, EAPs can significantly reduce medical costs arising from early identification and treatment of individual mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

For employees, EAPs also deliver powerful benefits:

  • Access to multiple types and layers of resources, which ordinarily could be time consuming and prohibitively expensive for employees to identify, research and acquire independently
  • Strong encouragement to seek help with challenges – and, in turn, a reduction in the stigma associated with certain problems
  • Anonymity, especially when dealing with workplace-related issues or extremely sensitive issues they wouldn’t want to share with co-workers or managers
  • Quicker solution for problems or sources of distress
  • Reduced risk of problems spilling over into their work performance and jeopardizing their employment
  • Improvement of overall well-being
  • Promotion of work-life balance

How an employee assistance program works

Typically, EAPs plans are subsidized entirely by employers. The cost of EAPs are usually based on either:

  • Usage (pay by service used)
  • Fixed fee (per-employee cost per month or per year)

In a typical EAP arrangement, employees enjoy telephone and online support with clinicians that is:

  • 24/7
  • Unlimited
  • No cost

Additionally, employees often are allotted a few face-to-face counseling sessions (per individual, per issue, per year) at a private, off-site location.

In certain circumstances, such as a tragedy connected to the workplace, EAP counselors may be available on-site to employees for as long as employers deem appropriate.

For minor medical issues, EAPs often provide 24-hour nurse assistance. For personal emergencies, such as a domestic-violence situation in which someone needs to leave their home environment quickly, EAPs can also help.

For employees in need of more than short-term counseling or sporadic assistance, EAPs serve as a gateway for accessing further, longer-term resources in accordance with individual needs. In these instances, employees will often receive a selection of (at least three) vetted, local referrals for comparison within their area of concern.

At this point, contact with referrals can take place either over the phone, online or in person, depending on the employee’s needs and the preferences of the resource. This is where an employee’s contact with the EAP ends.

EAP-provided referrals are free to employees, but continued services with some referred professionals could involve an initial consultation fee or discounted ongoing rates.

Usage of employee assistance programs

Your EAP provider should give you regular usage reports covering a specified time period – each month, quarter or year, for example.

This is important so you can determine whether your company is getting its money’s worth from the program.

Because EAPs keep identities confidential, usage reports will never tell you who, specifically, is using the program. Instead, these reports show you how many employees are taking advantage of your program and how, generally, they’re using it.

Communicating with your staff about an employee assistance program

Typically, EAP providers give employers pamphlets and posters that help their employees understand the benefits and options associated with the program.

Many EAPs will also send a representative to your office to participate in a benefits open-enrollment information session or a wellness fair to talk to your employees about the program. In some cases, an EAP may even offer the option of sending a counselor for regular on-site visits so that your employees can easily take advantage of these services.

Additionally, highlight your EAP in your employee handbook.

Legal obligations to watch out for

If you choose to offer an EAP, you’ll be responsible for complying with related privacy laws.

If an employer has sufficient reason to mandate that an employee seek assistance through an EAP, there are parameters to adhere to. This is a very careful process in place for specific reasons and, if used inappropriately, can introduce significant risk to a company.

Any employer that determines a need to conduct a mandatory EAP referral should seek outside counsel to ensure they follow the appropriate steps.

Certain EAPs may also be considered group health plans, which could make them subject to COBRA and other federal laws applicable to group health plans.

Finding an employee assistance program provider

If you join a professional employer organization (PEO), your employees get access to extensive benefit options, which often include an EAP.

If you use a benefits broker, your broker should be able to help you select a quality EAP provider. In addition, EAPs are sometimes offered as a piece of the overall benefits package or health insurance plan you select.

Human resources trade groups, such as the SHRM may be able to offer recommendations. Many of these same trade groups offer helpful EAP buyer guides that enable you to view lists of potential EAP providers and compare them.

Of course, you’ll want to ensure that any EAP you select is reputable and delivers services that are useful to your employees.

How do you determine whether an EAP provider is reputable? Red flags to watch out for include:

  • Lack of access to licensed or properly credentialed professionals
  • Weak privacy controls
  • Narrow range of services
  • Limited means of contacting the EAP
  • Poor responsiveness

Summing it all up

For many compelling reasons that appeal to employers and employees alike, an employee assistance program (EAP) is a powerful workplace benefit.

Once you select a reputable EAP provider and implement your program, make sure that you’re:

  • Adhering to all your legal obligations
  • Communicating with employees about their options within the EAP
  • Obtaining usage reports from your provider to determine whether you’re getting your money’s worth

For more information on how a PEO can make the selection and implementation of an EAP – among other benefits – efficient and hassle free for your company, download our free e-book: HR outsourcing: A step-by-step guide to professional employer organizations (PEOs).

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