Can EAPs cut long-term healthcare costs?

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A study of London civil servants revealed a link between chronic work-related stress and conditions related to heart disease.

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

There is no guarantee that providing an EAP for staff will automatically reduce premiums for long-term healthcare policies relating to stress-related conditions.

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Research published in the British Medical Journal in January, Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: Prospective study, concluded that civil service staff with chronic work stress were more than twice as likely to develop conditions related to heart disease as their chilled-out colleagues.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) by providing counselling services, have been designed to help tackle this issue of stress. So where employers do use EAPs they may be interested in their potential to limit exposure to the long-term costs associated with stress, such as increased premiums for the use of private medical insurance (PMI), income protection and critical illness insurance.

EAP-linked healthcare reductionsBut Steve Desborough, head of special projects for advisory firm SPS Wellbeing, believes it is hard to say that a successful EAP will automatically lead to reduced healthcare costs. "There’s nothing set in stone by any of the private medical insurers or income protection providers because they can’t quantify the effect of the EAP on reducing sickness absence and the cost of the medical plans," he explains.

EAPs may also be limited by confidentiality issues. Only when there is a significant level of work-related stress can providers notify the employer, and then they can only do so in general terms.

In addition, well-promoted EAPs seldom attract more than a 15% employee take up and even when they do, it may be difficult to justify a basis on which to reduce healthcare premiums across the board.

However, there are signs that EAP providers are moving to address these concerns. Kevin Friery, clinical director at Right Corecare, explains employers can spread the net wider by making all employees fill out a provider-led health questionnaire, thus flagging up at-risk individuals.

EAPs can also work to reduce the likelihood of later claims if line managers make sure they are utilised. Tim Cuthell, EAP consultancy and sales director for provider Employee Advisory Resource, explains: "Managing the costs to the business is all about early recognition and intervention, and managers are the best placed people in the organisation to do that."

Safety netBut Desborough adds that employers may not always want to know. "Companies don’t necessarily want to highlight the fact that [staff] can use an EAP because it brings the issue of stress to the fore."

Melvyn Measures, tenders and propositions manager at First Assist, believes that while an EAP may not reign in long-term healthcare costs on its own, it can assist in doing so. "It’s also a safety net for people that have stress outside of the workplace. If [they have] financial problems, or a relationship breakdown, support and guidance are there."

But there are alternatives to an EAP. Derek Warren, sales and marketing director for advisory firm Grosvenor Health, says providers of PMI and income protection policies may also be willing to supply similar services.

"What they might do is actually pay for some counselling because it’s in their interest not to have the person go into [income protection] payments if they can avoid it," he says.