Feature – Focus on healthcare: EAP schemes better target stress

Many firms are switching staff counsellors so as to focus on work-related issues, which could form a more targeted approach to stress, says Debbie Lovewell

If you read nothing else, read this …

  • Employers are looking to add a greater focus on work-related issues to employee assistance programmes (EAPs).
  • EAPs can be tailored to help firms meet the HSE’s stress management standards.
  • Schemes which offer a wide range of advice are often associated with lower take up.

Article in full

The tide is turning for employee assistance programmes (EAPs). After the huge wave of employers rushing to install a scheme in an attempt to absolve themselves of legal responsibility in stress cases, many are now re-evaluating exactly what they want from an EAP.

Instead of looking to a scheme to offer staff advice on any issue under the sun, employers are increasingly looking to ensure that their EAP has a strong focus on work-related issues. Kate Bawden, health management consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, believes there are two main reasons behind employers’ change of heart. "Firstly, experience shows that take-up is pretty low on general EAPs. If you look at the numbers that are ringing and the reasons they are ringing, they tend to be for personal problems. And with the HSE now looking to tackle stress and their management standards, what I think companies are trying to do is make sure the focus is more strongly on workplace stress than the more general problems people face."

So stress is likely to have played a large role in many employers’ decision to make changes to their EAPs. Schemes, for example, can be used to help employers meet the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) stress management standards. "There was an assumption that if they got a tick in the box and they had an EAP service then they would to some extent be protected. But experience has shown them that it’s a very blunt tool. It’s a cheap and cheerful way of offering support but it isn’t sufficiently well targeted. Certainly, when you look at the management standards the HSE is talking about now, they’re very much focusing in on things like job demand, control and [working] relationships. Those are the sort of things they not only want picked up by the EAP, but they want [it] to have a much better understanding of the dynamics involved," adds Bawden.

BPP Law School switched EAP providers earlier this year to help staff cope with stress at work. Its new scheme covers work-related issues such as stress, career, role difficulties and disputes at work alongside advice on personal issues. Suzanne Emmings, HR manager, says: "Sometimes in peoples’ lives, their problems are not always home-related, but they are suffering from problems at work and we didn’t want that to go unnoticed. We take that seriously."

For retailer Halfords, however, the relaunch of its EAP was not primarily aimed at increasing its focus on work-related issues, but at increasing staff take-up. Sean Morris, head of HR projects, explains: "We wanted to get away from it being called a stress line and [promote] the fact that it can actually be used for many other issues [staff] may have to do with work, family life and anything [else] that may potentially affect [their] time in the office. Some of it comes down to cost as well. It’s not cheap when you’ve got 9,500 people and your usage is far lower than the average for the sector."

Despite experiencing the low take-up that is often associated with more general services, Morris believes it is important to offer staff comprehensive cover. "I wouldn’t want to restrict it because, as we all know, a lot can happen outside of work that can affect people within work."

And, as Bawden concludes, every firm is different: "An awful lot depends on the nature of the company and its demographics. Obviously if it has got a lot of people that have childcare or eldercare problems then those very general support mechanisms are very useful and very much appreciated. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s going to be measured on."