A “household pulse” survey administered by the Census Bureau this spring showed one-third of Americans had symptoms of clinical anxiety, depression, or both. The National Safety Council is now emphasizing employers’ role in combatting this crisis, saying they must brace for an increase in substance misuse, absenteeism, presenteeism, and more.
As the NSC points out, it’s more important than ever to support employee mental health. Yes, we may need to innovate new methods of support. We shouldn’t overlook a critical front door to mental health care: the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
An EAP program offers third-party counseling services to help employees navigate challenging life situations that affect their personal and professional lives. While more than three-quarters of US employers offer EAP’s, most of their employees don’t know about the service. In this post, we’ll outline the three main barriers to engaging employees with their EAP.
What do EAP programs include?
An EAP program helps employees with stress management for a variety of situations. Services can address relationships, legal challenges, drug abuse, financial concerns, elder care support, employee mental health, and more. EAPs are strictly confidential and intended to help employees effectively deal with their problems, so they don’t carry them into the workplace.
We know that EAP services are a great way to increase employee productivity, happiness, and wellness. Estimates place the ROI on EAP at anywhere from $1.49 to $13 for every $1 spent.
Why Employees Ignore Their EAP Program
We see three main reasons why your employees don’t use EAP’s:
1. Too hard to understand
On a basic level, the nuts and bolts of an EAP program may be unclear to your employees. Awareness is the first step, as many employees might not know it exists. They may also be afraid to access the offering because of a misunderstanding of cost. Is it truly free? How many sessions are covered by their employer?
You can imagine that taken together, this stack of questions could keep already discouraged employees from ever reaching out.
Create a year-round communication plan that highlights your EAP offering services, costs, contact numbers, and any other simplified details. Distribute information in bite-sized pieces throughout the year, and don’t rely on email alone. Instead, alternate where and how you educate employees with SMS messages, emails, posters, and even Slack or Microsoft Teams messages.
2. Too much stigma
Mental illness, financial struggles, and marital problems remain heavily stigmatized, even in modern life. EAP’s address these issues, but employees may be hesitant to engage out of fear of stigmatization. That fear may even be unconscious; employees could be unwilling to seek help not only because they fear someone will see them struggle, but also because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they are struggling.
A misunderstanding of the EAP program can compound that fear, especially if employees think they need permission. Those who believe EAP use requires HR approval are unlikely to seek it for fear of being stigmatized.
Solution: Invite senior leadership to share stories about their positive EAP experience. If that isn’t possible, work to collect anonymous stories from your EAP provider. Social proof helps employees understand that everyone needs help from time to time, and helps break down the stigma.
Emphasize the confidential nature of EAP services in every communication about this benefit. Employees need to understand that management will not know who has accessed the 3rd party service, and anything they say will not make it back to any internal employees. Also, make it clear that employees don’t need prior authorization of any kind to seek help. You really can’t say it often enough.
Employee Assistance Program Guide
EAP’s are often buried in a benefits booklet and ignored. Here, we’ll share our best tips for helping employees navigate life with the help of your EAP.
3. Too hard to use
Lastly, your EAP may be too difficult to use. This barrier could be due to clunky software, a confusing benefits booklet, or adding too many similar services to your benefits offering. To access their EAP, do they call a number? Visit a website? Getting to the EAP can become an insurmountable obstacle.
An EAP is most effective when it’s clearly explained and offered alongside other benefits. A lack of centralized benefits, on the other hand, can drive down utilization across the board.
Solution: Make it simple to use your EAP by clearly displaying contact numbers throughout your office or company intranet. If you use Slack, pin contact information in a popular channel. If you use a benefits experience platform, point employees to this point of contact often so they can familiarize themselves with the process of using EAP.
Employees need mental health support more than ever before. Your EAP is poised to help—but only if you make it easy for them to vault these barriers. Make your EAP process easy to understand, work to break down stigma, and simplify EAP access. Sure, utilization will go up, but another outcome is more important: more employees will get the help they need.
That’s well worth your efforts.