The Urgent Need for an Employee Assistance Program

I had a call from an old friend over the weekend. She sounded devastated because of what she had heard from another friend. First of all, her own company had initiated pay cuts across all levels in addition to asking them to work home indefinitely. But her friend's employer had made it clear about intentions to layoff staff if the situation did not improve by the end of the month.

In her own words, she feared that her employer would take similar action in due time and the thought of it unsettled her. To make matters worse, her husband is on the frontline in the battle against the disease and each passing day made her less and less confident about the future. She feared for him contracting the virus and being asymptotic. She was scared about the increasing cases and the anxiety attached to all of it made it impossible to focus on work...

With the advent of COVID-19, employers should expect such bouts of anxiety, depression and possible disengagement from their staff. Employees are still human, and though they may show up for work, it will be totally erroneous to assume they are okay. In these times, the psychological wellbeing of people is fragile and threatened to say the least. Working from home comes with its own unique set of challenges as well; kids and spouses who cannot draw the line between work-hours and home hours for the mere fact that you are home, adds on to the stress. They cannot be ignored and yet you cannot just walk away from your PC at the slightest call because your employer still expects you to be present.

This increases the stress and leaves the employee with very little energy to meet targets.

That is why as business owners, now is the time for EAPs to be developed - even if there are plans to cut down your numbers.

What is an EAP?

I found two definitions that sum it up succinctly.

"It is an employer-sponsored employee assistance plan (EAP) is a work-based intervention program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting their performance at work, such as marital, financial or emotional problems; family issues; or substance or alcohol abuse" - SHRM

"An EAP, or employee assistance program, is a confidential, short term, counseling service for employees with personal difficulties that affect their work performance" - the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Essentially, they are designed to help people understand or overcome these difficulties regardless if the source is work or otherwise through an array of services such as:

  • Counseling for crisis situations such as COVID-19

  • Personal difficulties.

  • Job stress.

  • Relationship difficulties.

  • Eldercare, childcare, parenting difficulties.

  • Harassment.

  • Substance abuse.

  • Separation and loss.

  • Balancing work and family.

  • Financial or legal.

  • Family violence.

A thing to note is that EAPs are not meant to be an end in the process of addressing the challenges employees face but rather the starting point to finding a resolution. This means that EAPs will often have to liaise or refer employees to a more qualified solution provider once a "diagnosis" of the difficulty is established.

Why an EAP?

They were first introduced in the 40's to help employees struggling with alcohol and substance abuse, but over time, the success experienced with alcoholic employees led businesses to expand its scope to include issues related to stress, anxiety, abuse, and workplace conflict.

With the never-ending cycle of news around COVID-19, employees are gradually tilting to high levels of stress and uncertainty. Questions about the future of their jobs, the wellbeing of family members, battling the virus and their own safety leave very little room for them to function at their optimum. Hence it is up to employers to provide an avenue to address the psychological needs of their workforce if they really want to benefit from their skills - and this is where EAPs become relevant.

Benefits of Workplace EAPs

Increased Productivity

Distracted employees are often less motivated and creative at work. They request more sick days in an effort to cope and these absences can have serious consequences.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, companies lose about 36.6% of their productivity due to employee absences.

However, statistics show that after an EAP is introduced, productivity increases. EAPs also reduce sick leave usage by 33%, lost time by 40%, and work-related accidents by 65%.

Encourage a positive work environment

Stress-caused issues such as absenteeism decreased performance, and health problems affect not only one person but the overall workforce.

Additionally, if someone is experiencing a high level of stress, they may become more defensive, argumentative, and a lot less communicative at work - this is something to worry about if you know that 51% of employees stay at their jobs because of good relations with co-workers

An EAP can help a troubled employee by providing support as well as an outlet to discuss their issues. As a result, the employee experiences an improvement in stress levels, which will positively affect co-workers.

Lead to Increased Employee Retention

A positive work environment is a key factor in retaining talented employees. An EAP helps keep employees productive, present, and happier while on the job. Furthermore, this program is especially useful in attracting and retaining millennial employees. In general, millennials are less hesitant to reach out for help regarding mental health issues and are therefore more likely to appreciate and make use of an employee assistance program.

Source: Montridge

"EAPs are not meant to be an end in the process of addressing the challenges employees face but rather the starting point to finding a resolution"

The question then will be" How to set up an EAP"

Interestingly, putting up an EAP is not as difficult as managing a workforce without it. With a little commitment and thorough research, you could have an EAP ready and functioning in no time.

There are several dedicated EA service providers and health facilities that can offer EA services at an arranged fee. What you need to know and do as an HR Manager or business owner is identify what you want for your staff, the critical requirements any EAPs should have and how they intend for employees to access EAP services.

The steps involved are basically:

1. Identify gaps and determine what services you want

The first step is to identify potential gaps in your wellbeing program and then decide on what services your EAP will provide for your workforce. The array of services an EAP can provide is numerous and can be broken into the following classes

Individual services

  • wellness program

  • crisis counseling

  • stress management

  • referrals for child care or elder care

Managerial services

  • supervisor education and training

  • guidance on work performance review and discipline

  • support with implementing return-to-work policies

Organizational services

  • crisis event planning (such as for a natural disaster or violence)

  • coordination with other benefit programs and services

  • risk management

  • disability management

2. Determine EAP delivery models

Employers have a number of options when choosing a model for their EAP program; this includes programs that are entirely in-house to outsourcing every aspect of service.

  • Management-sponsored EAPs. Basically in-house programs, with staff employed directly by the organization.

  • Retainer or Fixed-fee contracts. Employers contract for various services such as counseling, referrals, and supervisory training with fees based on the number of employees, regardless of their actual EAP use.

  • Fee-for-service contracts It is an outsourced program characterized by a pay-per-use agreement. Employers contract directly with the EAP provider, paying only when the service is used.

  • Consortia. Small businesses join together to contract for EAP services, lowering the cost per employee.

  • Member assistance programs. These are union-sponsored programs that offer EAP services, ranging from prevention and problem identification to referral and counseling activities for employees and their family members.

  • Peer assistance programs. These are designed to train employees to provide limited EAP themed services to troubled employees. Often used as the first line of solution.

  • Mixed-model programs. These combine the different models in existence and is used by employers and unions with multiple worksites that have different needs and resources.

3. Develop EAP Policy

As with any system that is introduced into a company, your EAP must also be administered by policy, to prevent its abuse, provide clarity on its scope and the like. Topics to consider in the policy include Confidentiality, Accessibility, Eligibility and Services.

  • Confidentiality

As a confidential program, the policy must clearly outline the measures that will be put in place to ensure that employees' data on whatever challenges o resolutions are kept anonymous.

  • Accessibility

The policy should also talk about the ways in which the EAP can be accessed and at what periods

  • Eligibility

Information on who qualifies and in which situations should also be clearly stated. Some EAPs extend beyond employees to include spouses and other family members.

  • Services

The policy should also be clear on the services the EAP will provide, the scope, the points at which referrals are made and associated costs if any.

4. Identify service providers

The next step is to then consider which service providers can manage your EAP based on the model you choose. If it's an internal EAP, you would need to conduct a job analysis to come up with a job description to hire for your EAP team. If you intend to use a vendor, you will have to compare prices and services available in the market. You could also contract individual practitioners for counseling, stress management or wellness to provide these services.

5. Communicate EAP

Communicating the existence of an EAP is critical. In a study by the SHRM, less than 5% of employees were aware of an EAP in their organization, but more than 70% expressed high satisfaction after using it. Develop brochures, posters, and handouts to communicate the existence of the EAP. Update other policies to reflect new EAP policy, include in onboarding and continuously remind employees about its confidentiality.

6. Evaluate and Modify as needed

Once your EAP is up and running, put in place measures to determine its effectiveness, particularly with usage and quality of referrals. Revisit any model that is failing and repeat until it achieves its purpose. A successful EAP is one that is utilized frequently and is reviewed by employees as necessary.

That's it. With the above, you should have an EAP running in no time.

If you do need some guidance, the author is more than willing to help.

About the author

David Ampofo-Nkrumah is a budding HR practitioner, with experiences in consulting, FMCG and auditing firms. Jokingly called the Recruiter's recruiter, he has led various talent projects with major companies like Unilever and is currently Supervisor, People & Purpose at Deloitte Ghana. Outside of HR, he is a personal development trainer, an amateur artist, and a minister at the Makers House Chapel, Adenta.

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