Employers should maximise employee assistance programmes in downturn

The economic crisis is highlighting the importance of employee assistance programmes, and Christmas is a key time for employers to offer their workforce access to support, says Tom Washington

Waking up to anything but bad news about the economy seems like a distant memory now, and the cloud of depression hovering over many businesses shows no sign of clearing. Job insecurity, financial problems and housing issues have become real worries for many employees, prompting some employers to look at providing support.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are one method of giving staff access to advice and support, but these are often underused and misunderstood by employees. Overall, take-up of EAPs is typically low, at about 2%, which can be attributed to a number of factors. Employers normally face a challenge in making the most of the scheme they offer and encouraging staff to use it.

However, the current economic situation has served to highlight EAPs to staff. In September, research published by the Employee Advisory Resource (EAR) showed that calls to EAP helplines in July were 55% up on the same month in 2007. Kate Bawden, associate, health and benefits at Mercer, says: “Things have to be pretty extreme, like they are now, to notice a big difference in take-up. It is important to have an independent support system to help those in financial difficulty, or who need advice on legal or domestic issues.”

Emotional issues The time of year can also affect EAP usage, making employees feel concerns more keenly. Brian Gillen, international business director at EAR, says Christmas is one such period. “You find that deeper emotional and family issues come to the surface,” he says. “There are lots of wants and expectations from kids at this time of year, as well as fears of loneliness.”

So promoting an EAP at key times of the year can help to boost take-up. David Smith, secretary of the Employee Assistance Programme Association, says: “A positive employer should actively promote its EAP programme around events that take place during the year. All providers know that over Christmas and the end of the summer are the times that [EAPs} are needed the most.”

Regularly communicating their EAP can help employers gain the greatest return on their investment in the product, which will typically cost between £5 and £25 per employee per year. All too often, employers will simply give out the phone number to staff at a scheme’s launch without any further communication, which may mean the EAP is soon forgotten.

Communication can also help employers to shrug off the stigma attached to seeking help. “Do not address staff in a negative way,” says Gillen. “Don’t say ‘Are you struggling with your finances?’ Keep it solution-based by inviting [staff] to financial planning workshops. They should see the assistance as training or upskilling, rather than a weakness.”

But there is no point in employers promoting an EAP if staff do not then receive the help they need. Integrating the service with other benefits, such as occupational health, financial education or more specialist counselling, and adopting efficient organisational procedures can help to ensure staff do not slip through the cracks.

Take-up can also be improved by ensuring line managers are informed about the benefit and are willing to promote it. This allows them to be paternalistic without crossing the professional line, which may increase productivity and morale among staff.

Choosing the right provider goes a long way to making the perk appear relevant to staff, says Bawden. “EAP providers should be regularly approaching employers and offering relevant information. If an employer is not hearing from their provider very often, they should seriously consider whether they have got the right EAP.”

Providers can also supply employers with management information, which, if used intelligently, can identify problems within a workforce, as well as helping to calculate return on investment through figures such as decreased absenteeism. “Even though not all EAPs will produce useful management information, most will identify trends in one particular area, therefore allowing necessary intervention,” says Bawden †

If you read nothing else, read this…

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can provide access to counselling services on a range of issues, including stress.

Communicating EAPs to employees is vital, while integrating the benefit with other perks, such as occupational health, is a great way to boost awareness.

EAPs can provide management information that can be used to identify problem areas in a organisation where action may be necessary.

There are certain times in the year when the need to promote EAPs is more relevant. Most providers agree that Christmas and the end of the summer are the top two key times.