The role of EAPs in supporting employees’ emotional wellbeing


Need to know:

  • Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) provide an immediate, anonymous and cost-effective source of support and counselling.
  • The sheer range of topics covered with an EAP service means that many of the everyday elements that contribute to emotional wellbeing can be addressed.
  • EAPs need to be well communicated and integrated into a wider mental health and wellbeing strategy to ensure they are most effective.

In research carried out by Employee Benefits in July 2018, 96% of respondents stated that their organisation offered employee assistance programmes (EAPs) as a core benefit. With so many offering the service, how can employers get the best out of their EAP when it comes to the emotional wellbeing of their workforce?

Cheap, immediate and anonymous

Much of the appeal of an EAP lies in the fact that it is a low cost, confidential service that places advice and support at an employee’s fingertips, day or night. This immediacy is important when it comes to dealing with the daily events that impact on emotional resilience, says Rebekah Tapping, group HR director at Personal Group.

“Sometimes something happens, and [employees] just need to have that number very easy to access,” she explains. “People forget that it’s not just for counselling, it can just be to talk to somebody right now.”

Another key benefit of EAPs is that they allow employees to self-serve, adds Eugene Farrell, mental health lead at Axa PPP Healthcare and vice chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). Furthermore, with an average cost of between £5 and £10 per capita, he notes that the return on investment (ROI) for an EAP can be considerable.

To help demonstrate this, the EAPA has produced an ROI calculator. “It would have to be really disastrous to give a negative return,” states Farrell. “Even at a relatively modest level of utilisation, [employers] get a return that’s good.”

Factors that feed into emotional wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing, far from being isolated, is intertwined with many aspects of an employee’s life.

Financial advice, legal advice, family breakdowns; the whole package is really important,” says Tapping. “What might start out as a financial problem can quickly become about mental health or emotional wellbeing if it’s not quickly resolved.”

Rather than treating each issue faced by an employee as a standalone concern, employers should consider a holistic approach to wellbeing, agrees Maurice Quinlan, director at the EAP Institute.

“[This involves] treating the whole person on an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual [level]; not just responding, but having a holistic approach,” he says. “For example, we have seen people in our programme with emotional difficulties, but as a result of long-term stress they have also developed physical problems.”

For those who might shy away from discussing their mental health, the practical supports on offer via an EAP, such as legal and financial advice, might also be a helpful gateway, says David Price, chief executive officer at Health Assured.

“Unfortunately [getting assistance] can have negative connotations,” Price explains. “So, we think about everyday health: physical, financial, mental and social health, and how that affects emotions.”

Beyond the employee

Employers cannot be expected to resolve complicated life, legal and mental health issues for their employees.

Instead, they can direct staff to an EAP. “What it does for the line manager is that, rather than being overly involved with the employee’s issues, they can have a more objective management approach,” explains Farrell. “The EAP gives them that gap and breathing space.”

Potential pitfalls

Employers might face certain issues when trying to promote their EAP as an emotional wellbeing tool. “I do think the more mature generations do still have an ‘I’ll be fine, I’ll cope’ mentality,” says Tapping. “It’s not so much stigma, just a big change in behaviour.”

To help combat this, Tapping recommends regular communications, featuring examples and case studies, to ensure that using an EAP becomes known as a practical, everyday solution.

“EAPs need to be continually promoted and not just about mental health, but about the practical, debt and health support they provide,” agrees Farrell.

EAPs provide short-term emotional support, usually amounting to between six and eight counselling sessions, and are therefore not ideal when it comes to more complex mental health issues.

However, they do still have a role in these circumstances, either as a method of gaining initial assessment and referrals, or as an additional level of support.

“A lot of people contact us and say: ‘I spoke to a GP, and I can’t get to see somebody for a few months’,” notes Price. “We see ourselves as a bridge. EAPs are about support mechanisms and giving [employees] coping measures. If we’re providing counselling for six weeks, that’s six weeks towards that gap.”

Part of a wider strategy

Organisations should embed their EAP within a wider wellbeing strategy. This might include financial education programmes or training mental health first-aiders.

Farrell also explains that an EAP should be linked with an organisation’s occupational health programme and private medical insurance, to ensure that employees can be correctly managed, from initial assessment through to longer-term care if need be.

“The longer-term [solution] is to develop employee support services for workplace mental health,” Quinlan concludes. “The focus should be on prevention, health promotion, health surveillance and health assessment.”

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