Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a great tool to promote employee wellness. An EAP program offers third-party counseling services to help employees navigate challenging life situations that affect their personal and professional lives. Despite the clear benefits of an EAP program, employees rarely take advantage of this resource. In this post, we’ll try to better understand this concerning trend, as well as share tips on what you can do to improve adoption. But first, let’s take a closer look at what types of services are offered with EAPs.

What Exactly Do EAP Programs Include?

An EAP program is an employee benefit that’s sponsored by an employer and typically offered to an employee and their families. The program helps employees with stress management for a variety of situations. This can include everything from relationships, legal challenges, drug abuse, or financial concerns. EAPs are strictly confidential and intended to help employees effectively deal with their problems, so they’re not carried over into the workplace.

Studies show that 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. This is likely why 75% to 95% of organizations offer an EAP.

Why Employees Ignore Their EAP Program

Unfortunately, despite their prominence, EAP programs still suffer from low utilization. A survey found that the usage of EAP programs remains low at a mere 7%. Why is this the case? Let’s examine a few reasons why your employees may not be taking advantage of this great resource.

Lack of program education

If you’ve never heard of EAPs before reading this post, you’re not alone – EAP programs suffer from an education problem. As a result, employees who aren’t familiar with EAPs are unlikely to use the service.

Many employees may also still carry the perception that EAPs are only for people with mental health issues or drug problems. This misinformation can lead many employees to infer the program isn’t for them. While the program was initially created to address such concerns, today’s EAP service offering is much more diverse.

Here are a few ways to better educate your employees about EAPs:

    • Invest in education before launching an EAP Program. If you’re thinking about introducing an EAP at your company, inform your employees ahead of time. You can host webinars or lunch and learns about the program. This gives everyone a sense of the service offering, and whether or not it’s of interest to them.
    • Ask EAP program providers 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, loss of a family member, or legal. These are situations that nearly everyone can relate to.
    • Create physical and digital FAQs. Employees may feel uncomfortable asking HR questions about EAPs, so proactively providing materials with answers to frequently asked questions can help. This can be a resource they turn to before and after the EAP is launched.

Lack of Awareness

EAPs also suffer from a low awareness problem. This means that, even if an employer offers an EAP program, most employees aren’t aware of its existence. This can be due to a number of reasons. It could be that HR isn’t doing enough to make this benefit visible. Or company leaders themselves aren’t aware of the benefit and therefore can’t recommend it to employees.

Whatever is driving it, here are a few things you can do to increase awareness of your company’s EAP:

    • Include EAPs as part of your open enrollment communications. Don’t just lump the program in with your wellness benefits in your open enrollment materials. Instead, explicitly state that your company has an EAP. Then explain what services are offered.
    • Promote year-round. Just as you would with your other benefits, make sure to promote the EAP throughout the year. Not just during open enrollment season. This ensures EAPs stay top of mind for employees.
    • 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 these company leaders to get familiar with this benefit, they can serve as internal advocates for the program. This can play a big role in raising overall awareness among employees.

Associated Stigmas

Sadly, many employees don’t utilize EAPs because they’re worried about the associated stigmas. Perhaps they’re ashamed of the fact that they’re going through a divorce or dealing with an alcohol abuse problem. Or they feel embarrassed by their struggles with mental health issues. Men, in particular, are prone to this, which is likely why 60 percent of employees who use EAP services are female.

Here are tips to break down any stigmas around EAPs:

    • Create 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 do this by openly discussing tough topics like mental health and finances. By doing so, you demonstrate to employees that these are obstacles everyone faces at some point in their lives. While a culture change won’t happen overnight, it’s a powerful goal to work towards.
    • Have 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 personal struggles with work-life balance. These simple actions can make employees feel less alone and ashamed about their issues.

Fear of Confidentiality Issues

Many employees have the misconception that their counseling sessions will be shared with their employers. This is absolutely not the case. EAP services are strictly confidential. The only exception is if employees indicate wanting to harm themselves or others. Then the therapist or counselor has the right to report it to the appropriate people.

Here are a few ways to address apprehension around confidentiality:

    • Make sure employees understand that there are privacy laws in place. Many people aren’t aware that there are actual 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 use of the EAP program.
    • Include this in all materials and communication. Have these confidentiality laws visible across all channels. They can live anywhere from the kitchen to email communications to handouts. Also, make it easy for employees to access this information so they don’t have to ask HR for it.
    • Build trust with your employees. Above all, focus on building a trusting relationship with your team. If your employees believe that leadership has their best interests in mind, that trust is likely to be extended to other realms.

Misunderstanding of Cost

Another barrier to using EAPs could be misunderstanding around cost. Many EAP services have a healthcare component. So employees may assume they’re responsible for a copay or deductible. This could deter them from seeking out EAP services. However, contrary to this belief, EAP counseling services are free to employees and are completely covered by the employer.

Here’s how to clarify cost concerns with employees:

    • Separate EAP services from other healthcare benefits. Otherwise, employees may assume that the EAP falls under their health insurance. By keeping EAP separate from health insurance, you make it clear that there are no associated costs with this program.
    • Highlight the free services. EAP counselors are equipped to deal with categories of problems that many health plans won’t cover. This is a huge benefit for people who are interested in counseling services but are 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 are at their own liberty to access EAPs. Most of the time, it’s as simple as making a phone call to an EAP provider and scheduling an appointment.

Depending on your provider, you can meet with them at their office, over the phone, or video conference. Some counselors will even meet you at your office. All of this can be decided by your employees with no need to get HR involved.

A few tips to make it clear that employees don’t need to ask for permission:

    • Make instructions clear. In any EAP materials or communication, highlight the fact that employees can access these services at any time they choose. No manager or HR permissions required. The more places you can make these instructions visible, the better.
    • Provide easy access. If your employee knows exactly how to access 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 may feel like they have to ask HR for help. This can result in them forgoing the decision to use the services entirely. This leads us to our next point…

Lack of Centralized Benefits

Finally, it’s important to centralize all your benefits by designing a seamless benefits experience. Employees aren’t going to go out of their way to find and use a service. So if benefits information is scattered across multiple places, people are unlikely to use it. Decrease your chances of this happening by having all the benefits accessible in one easy-to-find location.

Here are a few ways you can centralize your benefits:

    • Pick 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 make sure to ask the vendor how they’ll support you through open enrollment and beyond.
    • Look for examples in the consumer space. Not sure what a seamless benefits experience looks like? Think about some of the consumer-friendly services you use everyday. Examples include Amazon, Netflix, or Yelp. Consider what makes these experiences so easy to use. Then mirror some of those characteristics in your benefits experience.

An EAP program can be a truly wonderful tool for employees. Getting employees to use yours could simply be a matter of examining why utilization of these services are so low. Then it’s all about taking action to combat this trend.

Invest in a few steps to start, such as education and making EAP services easy to access. You’re guaranteed to eventually see an uptick in usage. As a result, you’ll have employees who feel empowered to better manage their personal and professional lives. This will lead to higher performance and productivity for your organization as well.

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