Feature – In Depth: The return on investment of EAP schemes

Thought of as a catch-all to protect duty of care responsibilities, Sally Hamilton looks at the return on investment surrounding employee assistance programmes

Case study: Volvo Cars UK

Article in full

Americans are famed for talking as openly about sessions with their analyst as they would about a visit to a manicurist, but in the reserved ranks of UK workers it is another story. To admit problems that require the help of a psychological counsellor can be seen as a mark of failure that might damage career prospects.

The stiff upper lip means employees are more likely to bottle up their worries until it is too late, costing employers a fortune in absenteeism, reduced performance and long-term sickness. But should staff feel embarrassed about seeking help when workplace stress is becoming an increasingly widespread issue affecting large numbers of employees?

The recent CBI/AXA Absence and Labour Turnover Survey, published in May 2006, found that 74% of employers believe stress is an important enough issue to operate a stress management policy. Of these, 54% said they use an employee assistance programme (EAP) in their battle to protect employees from the effects of stress. An EAP can be a positive benefit for staff and the organisation offering it, but only if the service is demystified when introduced to employees.

Tony Urwin, clinical and business development manager at EAP provider Bupa Wellness, says employers see no image problem with an EAP, but employees can be more resistant. "Employers are more likely to think of an EAP as a benefit that they have to offer in order to fulfil their duty of care to employees. That said, there are a few organisations that don’t like to make it publicly known that they have one, although this is probably more because they prefer to keep all of their practices private."

Urwin concedes that there can be a stigma attached to EAPs from an employee’s point of view, but believes this can be overcome with clear communication about the service. "In other countries there has been a strong link between EAPs and counselling for mental health, but in the UK there is more of a focus on the information side of the service. We reckon that about 60% of calls [to EAPs] relate to information about legal, financial or other matters such as childcare. "Or perhaps the employee’s landlord hasn’t fixed their heater and they don’t know what their rights are or they have some issues about buying a home. These are not embarrassing worries but can make work more stressful if they are not sorted out quickly."

The impression some employees have of EAPs is sometimes outdated and linked to the old in-house welfare officers of a bygone era. "With that system people could see you knocking on the welfare officer’s door. In the 1980s, EAPs began to be run by external companies. These services are confidential, which is an important message to get across to staff," adds Urwin. Tim Cuthell, consultancy and sales director of Accor Services’ Employee Advisory Resource, says: "There can be a reluctance among employees to ask for help through fear that colleagues or managers will find out.

However, if an employer promotes the scheme properly, staff will know that the service is offered in confidence." Many managers, it seems, do not need to be convinced about the benefits of EAPs, since not only do some recommend that their staff use it, but they are also frequent users of the service themselves. "There is a growing use of EAPs by managers.

They want advice on how to deal with problems they see with their staff, which can range from something as minor as an employee’s personal appearance, to something more serious such as their performance at work. "They might want to know how to smooth an employee’s return to work after a bereavement but see it as a sign of their own weakness if they need to go and ask their HR department about how to do it sensitively. They need to know they can contact a service like ours discreetly," says Cuthell.

The Employee Assistance Professionals Association, which represents players in the EAP market, suggests as many as 30% of employers have an EAP of sorts in place, a figure backed up by Employee Benefits/HSA healthcare research 2006 which put it at 43%.

Providing an EAP can cost from as little as 25p a year per employee for a basic internet service to the more usual £10-£30 per person per year for a more comprehensive scheme that might include half-a-dozen face-to-face counselling sessions. To reduce costs, some organisations pay for a basic telephone-based scheme and top it up with one-to-one counselling sessions when required, or opt for a scheme on a pay-as-you-go basis instead.

What is clear is that organisations are taking EAPs more seriously than ever before. Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at Axa PPP healthcare, says: "This is partly because they are useful defence for employers." In 2004 the UK’s Law Lords endorsed a 2002 Court of Appeal ruling that organisations providing an EAP would not be likely to be found negligent in stress-related employee personal injury cases. However, employers should remember that just having an EAP in place is unlikely to let them off scot-free.

"If an employer has an EAP, but at the same time does nothing to help an employee who is saying they have too much work to do, it wouldn’t be a defence. It is useful and it is part of the tool kit, but it is not enough in itself," warns Lusted. Providers report back to employers on levels of EAP use without giving the names of staff who have accessed the service.

Using analytical software the provider can highlight stress hot spots in an organisation. This, in turn, can help reduce absenteeism in the business, but only if the employer acts on the feedback they are provided with. For a scheme to work properly, employers must issue regular reminders to staff of the EAP’s existence and its confidential nature, both through general company communications and posters, but also by training managers on how to spot employees who might benefit from using an EAP.

Manager referral is another sensitive area, since employees can feel vulnerable if someone knows they are using the service. A perplexing paradox in the EAP concept is what usage figures say about an employer. Some might think a low take-up suggests an EAP is a waste of money. On the other hand, some employers might have concerns that a high take-up rate suggests a poorly run organisation. However, providers say a low take-up merely suggests that a scheme is badly promoted.

They believe that for employees, just knowing an EAP is available can be seen as an attractive benefit, especially since some employers make the service available to employees’ family members too. Cuthell from Accor Services believes that the optimum level of use is about 13%-14% a year. "Lower usage means the service needs to be promoted more," he says.

Lusted also beleives that high use of an EAP is nothing for employers to fear. "High utilisation is a good thing. People face all sorts of pressures, from a dispute with a neighbour to a financial worry. "If it means they can sort out these problems by talking to a counsellor on the phone rather than taking a day off work it is good for the employer."

What’s an EAP?

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) offers staff access to medical, financial and legal counselling. Originally a US concept, EAPs reached the UK in the 1980s. Depending on the service a company opts for, staff can access an EAP over the phone, face-to-face and increasingly via the internet.

The service is confidential, but employers receive feedback on the level of use and types of problems employees have. They typically cost from £10 to £30 a year per employee. The main providers are listed members of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

Case study: Volvo Cars UK

Volvo Cars UK, based in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, has made an EAP available to staff since 1993. More than 250 employees and their families have access to the scheme, allowing them to take advantage of telephone and face-to-face counselling.

Janet Burr, human resources manager at Volvo Cars, says: "We don’t have a problem with absence, but I am aware that marriage problems, financial difficulties and childcare issues are just some of the many challenges that can affect any of us at any time during our lives." She says one-in-five of Volvo Cars’ employees have used the service for personal and work problems. "I have had feedback from several employees saying that they literally could not have coped without the service," Burr adds.