Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a great tool to promote employee wellness. They offer third-party counseling services to help employees navigate challenging life situations that affect their personal and professional lives. Although there are clear benefits to an EAP benefit, employees rarely take advantage of this resource.
In this post, we’ll try to understand this concerning trend and share tips on what you can do to improve adoption and bolster employee wellness. But first, let’s take a closer look at what types of services EAPs offer.
What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
An EAP program is an employer-sponsored benefit typically offered to employees and their families. From relationship issues and legal challenges to substance use disorders and financial concerns, EAPs are strictly confidential and intended to help your people manage their stress and other personal problems effectively, so they don’t carry over into the workplace.
Studies show EAP services are a great way to increase employee productivity, happiness, and wellness. They deliver a $6.47 return on investment for every $1 spent. It’s likely why over 97% of US organizations with more than 5,000 employees offer an EAP, while 80% of companies with 1,001–5,000 employees have EAPs; and 75% of companies with 251–1,000 employees.
Why Employees Ignore Their EAP Program
Unfortunately, despite their prominence, EAP utilization rates remain low. The Washington, D.C.-based National Business Group on Health found median utilization to be around 5.5%.
Why is this the case? Let’s examine a few reasons your employees may not be taking advantage of this great resource.
Lack of Program Education
If you’ve never heard of an Employee Assistance Program before reading this post, you’re not alone. EAPs suffer from an education problem. As a result, employees who aren’t familiar are less likely to use the service.
Many employees might still perceive EAPs as only for people with a mental health issue or substance use disorder. This misinformation can lead people to infer the program isn’t for them.
While initially created to address such concerns, today’s EAP service offerings are much more diverse. Here are a few ways to better inform your people about this employee benefit:
Invest in education before launching an EAP Program. If you’re thinking about introducing an EAP at your company, inform employees ahead of time. You can host webinars or lunch-and-learns about the program to give everyone a sense of the support services that will be available and whether it’s of any interest to them.
Ask your EAP provider to come into the office and present. This presentation should focus on topics that resonate with your employees - for instance, discussing services for mental health management, elder care, loss of a family member, or legal issues.
Create physical and digital FAQs. Employees might feel uncomfortable asking your human resource rep questions about EAPs, so proactively providing materials with answers to frequently asked questions can help. They can return to this resource before and after your EAP launches.
Lack of Awareness
EAPs also suffer from an awareness problem. Even if an employer offers an EAP, most employees don’t know it exists. There are several reasons why this lack of awareness might happen.
Human resource teams might not be doing enough to make this benefit visible. Or company leaders aren’t aware of the benefit and therefore can’t recommend it to employees. Whatever is creating the gap, consider the following to bolster awareness:
Include EAPs as part of your open enrollment communications. Don’t just lump the program in with your wellness benefit information in your open enrollment materials. Instead, explicitly state that your company has an EAP. Then explain what assistance programs are available.
Promote year-round. Just as you would with other benefits, be sure to promote the EAP throughout the year, not just during open enrollment season. That way, this employee resource can stay top-of-mind.
Offer a training session for all managers. Most managers are in the same boat as other employees: They don’t know that EAPs exist. However, if you create opportunities for company leaders to get familiar with the benefit, they can serve as internal advocates for the program. This can play a significant role in raising overall awareness among employees.
Sadly, many employees don’t use EAPs because they’re worried about the associated stigmas.
Perhaps they’re ashamed that they’re experiencing personal issues like a divorce or dealing with a substance use disorder. Or they feel embarrassed by their mental health struggles. Men, in particular, are prone to this, which is probably why 60% of employees who use EAP services are female.
To break down any stigmas surrounding EAPs, you can try:
Creating a culture of openness. When employees fear stigma in the workplace, it’s because they’re nervous about how they’re going to be perceived. Creating a culture of open-mindedness will help employees feel more comfortable being themselves. You can start by openly discussing tough topics like mental health and finances. By doing so, you acknowledge that these are obstacles everyone faces. While a culture change won’t happen overnight, it’s a mighty goal toward which to work.
Having company leaders share their personal experiences. One way to create a culture of openness is by encouraging vulnerability — especially among company leaders. Have the leadership team share their battles with mental health. Or encourage managers to share their struggles with work-life balance. Simple actions can make employees feel less alone and ashamed about their experiences.
Fear of Confidentiality Issues
Many employees have the misconception that their EAP counselor will share what happens in a session with their employers, but that’s not the case.
EAP services provide confidential counseling. The only exception is if employees indicate wanting to harm themselves or others. In that case, the therapist or counselor has a responsibility to report it to the appropriate people.
Address apprehension around confidentiality by:
Making sure employees understand that there are privacy laws in place. Many people aren’t aware of fundamental laws that protect their confidentiality. It’s not just a verbal promise. Let them know that, legally, there aren’t any reports that come back to the company. There’s also no external record of their EAP program usage.
Including it in all materials and communication. Have these confidentiality laws visible across all channels. They can live anywhere in the workplace - from the kitchen to email communications and handouts. Make employee access to this information effortless, so they don’t have to ask HR for it.
Building trust with your employees. Above all, focus on building a trusting relationship with your team. If your employees believe leadership has their best interests in mind, that trust will likely extend to other realms.
Read our post “Building Trust in Your Benefits” to learn more.
Misunderstanding of Cost
Another barrier to using EAPs could be the overall confusion surrounding cost. Many EAP services have a healthcare component, so employees might assume they’re responsible for a copay or deductible.
This misconception could deter employees from seeking much-needed support. To be clear, EAP counseling sessions are free to employees and entirely covered by the employer.
You can clarify cost concerns by:
- Separating EAP services from other healthcare benefits. Otherwise, employees may assume that the EAP falls under their health insurance. Keeping EAP separate from health insurance in internal communications, like your benefits booklet, makes it clear there are no associated costs with this program.
- Highlighting free services. EAP counselors are equipped to deal with categories of problems that many health plans won’t cover. It’s a massive benefit for people interested in counseling services but who may be deterred by the cost. Emphasize that EAPs are a great and convenient alternative to seeking expensive providers outside of the program.
Hesitation Around Asking for Permission
Another misconception about EAPs is that employees have to ask HR for permission to use the services. Or that they need their managers to sign off on it. Again, this isn’t true! Employees may access EAPs at their convenience.
Most of the time, it’s as simple as making a phone call to an EAP provider and scheduling an appointment. And depending on your provider, you can opt for a virtual consultation, in-person visit at their office, or a consult over the phone. Some counselors will even meet you at your office. Your employees may decide all of this without HR involvement.
To make it clear that employees don’t need to ask for permission, you should:
Make instructions clear. In any EAP materials or communication, highlight the fact that employees can access these services when they want. No manager or HR permissions are required. The more places you can make these instructions visible, the better.
Provide easy access. If your employee knows exactly how to access your EAP services, they’re less likely to feel the need to ask for permission. On the flip side, if it’s difficult to access an EAP program, employees might feel like they have to ask HR for assistance. The extra step could cause them to forgo the assistance programs entirely. This leads us to our next point ...
Lack of Centralized Benefits
Finally, it’s crucial to centralize all your benefits by designing a seamless benefits experience. Convenience is king, so if you scatter benefits information across multiple places, employees are unlikely to use it. Don’t let that be the case. Make resources easily accessible in one location.
Some other ways to centralize benefits also include:
Picking the right vendor. Choosing the right partner is critical to centralizing your benefits. Select a vendor that can easily integrate with your existing portals. Also, look for a user-friendly interface that won’t be difficult for your HR team to manage. And be sure to ask the vendor how they’ll support you through open enrollment and beyond.
Looking for examples in the consumer space. Not sure how a seamless benefits experience should look? Think about some of the consumer-friendly services you use every day. Examples include Amazon, Netflix, or Yelp. Consider what makes these experiences so enjoyable. Then mirror some of those characteristics in your benefits experience.
An employee assistance program can be a truly remarkable tool for your workforce. Getting employees to use your EAPs could simply be a matter of examining why these services’ utilization is so low. Then it’s all about taking action to combat the trend.
Invest in a few steps to start — such as education and making EAP services easy to access — and you’ll eventually see an uptick in usage. As a result, you’ll have employees who feel empowered to better manage their personal and professional lives, thus boosting your organization’s work performance and productivity.
This post was originally published in September 2019. It was updated in March 2022.