Occupationally speaking and otherwise, well-being translates to productivity. Thanks to forward-thinking research and increased funding by both private and federal parties, occupational social work is providing new ways to support employees across a growing number of industries. The organizations involved in this effort use employee assistance programs (EAPs) to provide services that seek to comprehensively address the struggles – even non-work-related problems – that employees face daily.

Most of us, when we hear the phrase “employee assistance,” think of conventional services and benefits packages: retirement plans, health/dental insurance, worker’s compensation and so on. While these benefits are of course vital to sustaining a healthy and productive workforce, they don’t fully encompass the problems that modern employees have to contend with. This is where the EAP comes in.

Employee assistance programs are company-sponsored services that seek to address the social, psychological, economic and legal needs of a company’s workforce. In many cases, like health insurance, these services also extend to family members of the covered employee. The following list provides a small sample of the most common issues addressed by EAPs:

  • Crisis debriefing
  • Mental health (especially stress-related) disorders
  • Disputes with coworkers
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Financial struggles
  • Legal advice

According to a Virginia Commonwealth University publication, 80% of employee assistance programs are provided by third-party, for-profit companies. This makes sense, considering the purview covered by the typical EAP because trained social workers are required to effectively counsel employees with the above issues using proven models.

After the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1986, all government agencies were required to maintain EAPs. Initially, these services were mostly focused on alcoholism, but in the late eighties, they began to expand to address a more balanced range of problems. Today, EAPs provide a comprehensive suite of services to a very large portion of the American workforce. These programs are being adopted by other countries as well, who also embrace a multidisciplinary, yet social-worker-heavy staffing approach.

EAP Service Delivery

As mentioned, the modern EAP seeks to provide a broad range of counseling and assistance services, especially when addressing large employee populations. Depending on the EAPs methodology, the infrastructure of the company and the issue being presented by the employee and/or employer, the manner in which these problems are addressed can take one of several forms.

Direct counseling – Especially when handling sensitive matters that may elicit a strong emotional response from the employee (family issues, crisis, mental health problems, etc.), direct counseling is a highly effective tool for providing actionable solutions to problems. Employees perform better when they have access to confidential counseling solutions, which can also turn into mediation sessions for workplace disputes.

Call centers – Though direct counseling is privileged, sometimes, employees are concerned that coworkers in their proximity will see that they are receiving counseling services. For even greater privacy, EAPs offer hotlines to assist employees with any problem that affects their workplace productivity.

Education – Thanks to a growing evidence base, modern EAPs are highly conscientious of the most statistically relevant problems facing employees today. If an employee displays signs of “burnout” (i.e., chronic fatigue), substance abuse or another common problem, there may already be an educational resource in place to effectively treat the issue. Like all other EAP services, employees can take advantage of educational resources for free.

Grief and Crisis Management – On an individual level, as with the loss of a close family member, grief counseling is an integral component of healthy work reintegration. Taking time off for bereavement is a healthy first step in most cases, but with the help of employee-sponsored grief counseling services, grieving employees can shift back to the work environment with less friction. On a company-wide level, as in the event of a shooting or the loss of an employee, EAPs can provide crisis debriefing to the same effect.

Key Advantages

So far, we’ve covered the “what” and the “how” of employee assistance programs, but the “why” needs to be explored further to justify the choice for employers. After all, EAPs aren’t free. The cost varies, but most larger employers (100 or more employees) report a cost of roughly $33 per employee per year. This brings us to justification number one: cost-effectiveness.

A Worthy Investment

Some metrics are much easier to track than others when it comes to financial reporting. For example, the price increase involved with switching to more expensive, but less illegal manufacturing processes can be easily compared against the corresponding decrease in fines paid by that company for any fiscal year – logical enough.

How does a company quantify improved work relationships, lower substance abuse rates and decreased stress levels? In the case of EAPs, it’s all about careful monitoring of the costs associated with these problems. For example, decreased relationship problems translate to less turnover, which is very much related to the bottom line. Because of benefits like these, investing in an EAP yields a 3x return, which is largely why more than 90% of large companies use them.

Priceless Prevention

Social workers are intimately familiar with the importance of assessment and early action for prevention purposes, and EAPs are an excellent opportunity to demonstrate this. Whether it’s absenteeism, physical or mental health issues, behavioral problems and so on, an EAP can help to curtail the problem before it affects the employee’s productivity any more. It will require a close synergy, however, between workplace supervisors and EAP personnel, to proactively identify and assess the employee’s need for EAP services.

In order to systematize this delivery of early detection, screening and prevention services, many workplace supervisors utilize EAPs as a “pre-disciplinary” action. If a normally punctual employee begins missing work without explanation, for example, instead of going straight to disciplinary action, a supervisor may call upon an EAP to work with the employee and identify the root of the problem. In approaching it with a thoughtful, preventive mentality that address the employee’s problem instead of simply punishing them, employers can decrease absenteeism and subsequent productivity loss significantly.

Subjective Outcomes Matter, Too

Money isn’t the only currency that can affect a company and the people in it. When an employee feels listened to, protected and encouraged to succeed, they will make more effective and frequent use of their higher-level faculties. They will think more creatively, express their ideas with less hesitation and listen openly to the ideas brought forth by their peers. An employee supported under an effective EAP will have more time and energy to dedicate to their work, and they will be less likely to engage in unproductive behaviors.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

September 2019

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