Overcoming negative perceptions of employee assistance programmes

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Employee assistance programmes were first introduced to treat substance abuse problems.
  • Other common stigmas associated with EAPs are issues with seeking help and confidentiality.
  • Employers can help dispel these fears by regularly communicating exactly what EAPs are, what they can be used for and how they work.

Employee assistance programmes can suffer from negative perceptions among staff, but good communication can clarify the important service they provide, says Jennifer Paterson

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) were first introduced in the US in the 1970s. They were developed largely to deal with the overindulgence of the 1960s and substance abuse issues – think of alcohol intake levels on television series Mad Men. Over the years, EAPs have evolved and are now used to treat a multitude of mental, emotional and financial problems.

That early link between EAPs and substance abuse may be one of the reasons staff often have negative perceptions of them. Other factors include their association with punishment, the stigma attached to seeking help and concern over confidentiality.

Alan King, president and chief operating officer at Workplace Options, says: “EAPs were created to deal with a problem and were seen in a punitive way. Some organisations continue to use them in ways where staff can be referred by their manager for a whole host of issues. Some people see it as a tool for the employer against the employee, rather than as a valuable resource for the employee.”

Professor Rob Briner, organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, says: “Some people feel EAPs are a sticking plaster because they are used to mop up problems with managers that should not have arisen. Society as a whole seems to feel that if you ask for help, it makes you weak.”

Confidentiality around EAPs can be a concern. Aaron Ross, CEO of First Care, says: “Employees are more cautious about using the service than they would be if they were referred by their GP. There is a general negative perception with a lot of occupational health functions because the employee does not know where the confidentially sits.”

Changing perceptions of EAPs

Communicating what EAPs are and what they can be used for is the first step towards changing these perceptions. One option is to communicate that EAPs can help to solve a number of problems. “It is not always clear what they are for,” Briner points out.

Bringing in an EAP for the first time or changing providers gives employers an opportunity to explain its value. King says: “Rather than dial 0-800-EAP when you have a problem or putting up posters of someone looking depressed and unhappy, most [EAPs] are changing that to focus on the positive things they can do, such as financial issues, legal issues, and assistance with childcare and eldercare, things that may cause [staff] stress or concern.”

It should also be emphasised that the EAP is separate from the employer, says David Smith, secretary of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. “That is in the branding, in the words employers use, and in the communication methods that go out.”

One option is to use themed promotions, says Smith. “One provider sent out a whole package around the World Cup. Employers were anticipating absence at work, but a lot of EAP providers recognised it as an opportunity to promote the EAP.”

Another way to remove any stigma associated with EAPs is to communicate the service throughout the year, says First Care’s Ross. “There should be a quarterly education programme of what the services is there for, in what circumstances it can be used, and the confidentiality aspects.”

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