Buyer’s guide to employee assistance programmes


The facts

What are employee assistance programmes (EAPs)?

An EAP provides confidential information, support and counselling to staff with personal or work-related issues. The service is available around the clock by telephone or online. A comprehensive EAP also provides access to face-to-face counselling if necessary. An EAP can also support an employer. As well as providing advice to line managers, it can produce anonymous management information to help an employer identify and tackle workplace issues.

What are the origins of EAPs?

EAPs first appeared in the US in the 1950s to help employees tackle alcohol-related problems. They made their way to the UK, in a more comprehensive format, in the 1980s.

Where can employers get more information and advice?

The UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA),, represents individuals and organisations concerned with employee assistance, psychological health and wellbeing.

What are the costs involved?

Costs depend on the number of employees and the breadth of the service. A telephone-only service might cost between £2 and £3 per employee per year, while the average annual running cost for a comprehensive EAP is £14 per employee.

What are the legal implications?

A Court of Appeal ruling in 2002 (Sutherland v Hatton) stated that an EAP could protect an employer from employees’ stress claims, but this was clarified in 2007 when judges stated that employers needed to do more to support staff than simply offering an EAP.

What are the tax issues?

An EAP can be regarded as a business expense rather than a benefit-in-kind as long as it satisfies HM Revenue and Customs’ definition of welfare counselling and is not provided directly to employees’ dependants, unless in relation to an issue being faced by an employee.

What is the annual spend?

No market share data is available but the EAP sector is worth about £70m, according to the EAPA.

Which providers have the biggest market share?

No sales data is available, but the larger players include Axa Icas, Bupa, Busy Bees Benefits, Care First, Ceridian, CIC, ComPsych, Health Assured, P&MM, Right Management Workplace Wellness, Validium, Westfield Health and Workplace Options.

Which have increased their market share the most?

This is impossible to say in the absence of sales data.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) give employers an opportunity to support staff, particularly during times of financial and emotional stress.

Central to an EAP’s operation is a confidential telephone line. This is available around the clock, providing staff with advice and information on a variety of matters, including psychological issues, relationship problems, addiction, childcare, eldercare, debt and legal worries.

Most employees will be able to access support by phone or online, but an EAP can also refer staff for face-to-face counselling if necessary. This is available in more comprehensive EAPs, which may include a series of up to six or eight counselling sessions.

The level of cover will differ significantly depending on the provider; some will only offer information-based counselling that will signpost employees to written materials, whereas others will offer access to professionally trained counsellors, and legal and debt experts.

The importance of this support can be seen in data collected through Canada Life Group’s EAP, which found that the number of depression-related calls increased by 40% in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period in 2014. The data, published in July 2015, also found that one in five calls made to the EmployeeCare EAP were regarding mental health issues: anxiety, depression and stress. This was a 5% increase from 2014.

As well as using an EAP to help safeguard employees’ mental health and wellbeing, employers can also benefit. A healthier, happier workforce means lower sickness absence rates, increased productivity and higher levels of engagement.

Supporting line managers

An EAP can also help line managers to deal with any concerns they might have about employment issues or employee health. Some EAPs have even developed specialist support for employers, including trauma management and mediation services.

A further benefit of EAPs to larger organisations is the management information that these yield. As long as the scheme is large enough for the data to remain anonymous, an EAP can provide an employer with details of the service’s usage.

This management information can give the employer an insight into potential problems in its workforce, for example, high levels of work-related stress, bullying or low morale. Armed with this knowledge, it can make changes or adapt a health and wellbeing programme to prevent any issues from escalating.

Market growth

The recognised benefits of EAPs have seen the market grow significantly in recent years. The UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association’s (EAPA) Market watch 2013 report, published in July 2013, found that the number of employees with access to an EAP was 13.8 million in 2013, a significant increase from 8.2 million in 2008. This included 23 of the top 25 organisations in the Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For 2013.

Large employers that have launched EAPs in the last couple of years include Whitbread, which rolled out a programme to more than 40,000 staff in 2014 and Northern Powergrid, which introduced a scheme for its 2,670 employees in November 2014.

Added-value EAPs

As well as employers realising the benefits of EAPs, the market’s growth has been driven by EAPs being added to other health-related benefits. An EAP is now often provided as an added-value service with products such as a health cash plan, private medical insurance (PMI), group critical illness insurance or group income protection.

But the quality of these free EAPs varies greatly. Some will provide access to face-to-face counselling and management information, but these elements are often stripped out.

Further complications arise where an EAP is not available to all employees, for example, where it is attached to a voluntary benefit or is part of the medical insurance offered only to management. Although some providers will automatically extend a free EAP to all staff, if it is available only to a subset of employees, the service can be difficult to promote, which leads to low utilisation.

But this is not only a problem for free EAPs. Although these offer support across a range of areas, the number of employees that pick up the phone to call can be pitifully low. According to EAPA’s Market watch report, average usage is about 10% of the workforce, and 16% is considered high usage for an EAP that offers online and telephone support.

There are ways to push up usage, however. Regular promotion of the service and the areas it covers can remind staff to use it, but EAP providers also recommend including the service in line-manager training. If line managers have referral to the EAP as one of their tools when dealing with employees, the number of service users will increase.

Access to online services can also help to increase usage, and an increasing number of EAPs now include online resources. Logging into a service is simpler and less personal than speaking to a person, and this facility is particularly popular among younger employees and men. Because of this, many EAP providers have taken steps to reach out to these groups.

A further trend among EAP providers is to offer resilience training to employers looking to create a workplace that supports mental wellbeing.

There has also been further recognition of the impact that divorce and separation can have on the emotional health of employees. Many EAP providers support the pilot scheme ‘Dialogue First’, an initiative designed to help those facing family breakdown to reach a settlement through dialogue, rather than the courts. The pilot initiative was launched in September 2015, and will run for 18 months. Royal Mail is among the employers that have introduced the scheme for employees.

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The growth in the EAP market, coupled with pressure on price and the demand for more and more services, means consolidation among providers is likely in the next few years. Although this may take some of the more niche players out of the market, it will give those that remain the scale to deliver what employers and employees want.


  • 37% of employees have considered leaving their job due to stress at work (Source: MetLife Employee Benefits, March 2015)
  • 47% of employees find their job stressful (Source: MetLife Employee Benefits, March 2015)
  • 48% of employees have seen their stress levels increase in the past year (Source: MetLife Employee Benefits, March 2015)
  • 85% of employers believe they have a significant responsibility to provide staff with an environment that promotes mental wellbeing (Source: Buck Consultants at Xerox, August 2015)
  • 51% of employers rate their organisation as very or extremely supportive of employees’ mental wellbeing (Source: Buck Consultants at Xerox, August 2015)
  • 25% of UK workers do not know how to deal with stress and try to keep it to themselves (Source: CV Library, November 2015)