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Given the alarming rise in stress, depression, and suicide rates reported by the CDC, it's clear that mental health concerns are increasingly impacting the well-being of individuals across the nation. This trend has forced companies to take employee well-being seriously and consider a variety of supportive measures.

In response, many organizations have adopted flexible work arrangements, enhanced their paid time off policies, redesigned office spaces, introduced employee recognition programs, provided gym and massage reimbursement programs, and various other initiatives to improve employees' physical and mental health.

Despite these efforts, the utilization of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) - which are specifically designed to address mental and emotional stressors - remains low.

The question of why these programs are underutilized is now being examined across corporate and academic fronts. 

EAP Definition, Scope and Accessibility

According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, an EAP is:

A set of professional services specifically designed to improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace. It is designed to assist in identifying and resolving personal concerns, including health, marital, family, financial, alcohol, drug, legal, emotional, stress, or other personal issues.

EAPs are more commonly offered among larger employers as part of a broader employee wellness program.  

In the US, over 97% of companies with more than 5,000 employees provide EAPs. This figure drops to 80% for companies with 1,001 - 5,000 employees, and 75% for companies with 251 - 1,000 employees.  

However, there is a notable gap in accessibility for smaller organizations as only 32% of companies with an employee count of 1-99 offer an EAP. This data underscores the need for broader adoption across all types of businesses to ensure comprehensive support for all employees.

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Barriers to EAP Utilization

As vital as EAPs are for maintaining and enhancing the health of the workforce, it’s estimated that only 3-5% of employees use available EAP services. 

Some of the more common barriers to EAP usage can be addressed in your benefits planning strategy, including:

  • Lack of access: Whether it’s due to the organization’s size or culture, there are still a significant number of employees who are not offered access to an EAP. 
  • Lack of awareness: Many employees are unaware the program exists, or they are unaware of the range of services provided. 
  • Complexity of use: In some cases, the process to access the EAP benefit can be complex or cumbersome, making it difficult for employees to make the most of these services. 
  • Stigma of EAPs: There is often a stigma, or fear of judgment, attached to seeking help for mental health issues or personal problems, which prevents employees from taking advantage of the services.
  • Concerns of confidentiality: Privacy concerns can deter employees from using EAP services. Some employees fear their personal information could be shared with their employer or that using the service could negatively impact their job security or career progression. 

By appropriately addressing these barriers, organizations will be able to enhance EAP accessibility and increase the rate of utilization, ultimately fostering a healthier, more supportive work environment.

Suggested Strategies to Enhance EAP Utilization

Below are a few strategies that organizations can consider to enhance the utilization of their EAP programs. 

  • Early Introduction: Introducing EAP services early, during employee onboarding or orientation, not only informs employees about the services but also enhances the likelihood of their utilization. This can lead to more preventative use, allowing employees to address issues before they’re in a state of crisis.
  • Simplify Access: Streamline the process for accessing EAP services, including clear, simple instructions and multiple access points like the telephone, online or mobile video chats, and in-person options.  Telephonic counseling with 24 hour EAP website access has been shown to increase EAP utilization. 
  • Communication and Promotion: Regular promotion of EAPs through multiple communication channels such as email, newsletters, team meetings, and all-hands meetings ensures employees are aware of the program. Include EAP details during the annual benefit open enrollment period and wellness fairs as well. 
  • Integrate into life-change events: Reminding employees of EAP services during significant life events such as marriage, childbirth, bereavement, short- and long-term disability, and other life-changing events ensures they are aware of the available resources when they’re most needed. 
  • Provide Routine training: Training and educating HR staff and managers regularly on the importance of EAPs, the benefits, and how to appropriately refer employees to EAPs. 
  • Addressing stigmas: Organizations should foster a supportive and accepting culture by openly discussing the benefits of EAPs, demonstrating compassion and empathy for employees facing challenges, and refraining from any language that could negatively impact perceptions of EAPs.
  • Socialize EAP Use: Studies have also shown that employees who share their experience using EAP services can have a positive impact on organizational EAP utilization.   

Advantages of Enhancing EAP Utilization

Clearly, driving EAP utilization has benefits for employees, but the needs of the business must also be addressed. Enhancing EAP utilization contributes significantly to organizational health and effectiveness in equal measure.  

Here’s how both the employee and the employer benefit from increased engagement with EAP services. 

Advantages for the Employees

In the EAP effectiveness measure titled ‘Employee Life Satisfaction’, 1-in-3 EAP users begin their EAP with a life satisfaction problem, but this number is reduced by about half after using EAP services. 

This significant improvement in life satisfaction among EAP users illustrates the profound impact that timely and effective support can have on an employee's overall well-being and work-life balance

Advantages for the Employer 

Personal and professional stressors experienced by employees can result in substantial costs to employers in the form of employee absenteeism and presenteeism.  

One study concluded there was a greater reduction in sick leave usage from employees using EAP services versus employees who did not seek EAP services.  Other studies have shown that employees that use EAPs restore lost work productivity in most cases.  

These findings highlight the role that EAPs play in reducing the financial impacts associated with lost productivity and absenteeism. 

Everybody Wins

EAPs are an important part of your benefit offerings, the case for boosting EAP utilization cannot be overstated. By fostering a healthier, more supported workforce, companies can enhance employee well-being, productivity, and overall organization effectiveness.  

By proactively addressing EAP utilization and eliminating the barriers of EAP usage, organizations not only demonstrate a commitment to employee welfare, but they also demonstrate their commitment to enhancing the employee work experience, thus positively impacting the employees’ quality of life.  

That is a win-win.

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By Jason Herring

Jason Herring, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is an experienced HR executive who’s passionate about leadership, culture, and all things HR. With over 15 years of experience, Jason is committed to core values that foster collaboration, inspire curiosity, and infuse enthusiasm into every endeavor.