Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are now commonly regarded as an essential feature of employee benefit schemes, particularly in light of the post-pandemic emphasis on staff wellbeing.
In this guide for employers, we look at what EAPs are and how they work in practice. We also offer practical tips on how to select and get the most out of your EAP.
What is an employee assistance programme?
An employee assistance programme is an employer-funded scheme to enable employees to access independent, professional support on a confidential basis to address any personal or work-related problems that may be adversely impacting their performance at work.
The professional support available on EAPs will vary between providers, but can include a 24/7 telephone helpline, together with an assessment, plus short-term counselling and referral services for employees and their immediate family. EAPs can also operate in a number of different ways, from telephone to online and in-person support.
Originating in America, EAPs became popular in the UK following a series of employment law cases that considered the employers’ duty of care in relation to work-related stress. In particular, in the case of Sutherland v Hatton  EWCA Civ 76 — in which the Court of Appeal heard four related appeals in which damages had been awarded for negligence after each claimant had stopped working for their employer owing to stress-induced psychiatric illness — it was said that any employer “…offering confidential help to employees who fear that they may be suffering harmful levels of stress is unlikely to be found in breach of duty”.
As such, the provision of a confidential advice service, together with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, to help alleviate any issues or symptoms experienced by the employee in the context of work-related stress will go a long way to discharging the employer’s duty of care. As a result, the use of an employee assistance programme in the workplace can be an extremely important resource for employers to offer their employees.
Benefits of an employee assistance programme
There are a number of key benefits for employees when it comes to employee assistance programmes. The provision of independent and professional support on a confidential basis to address any personal or work-related problems, including counselling or other treatment referrals, can make a real difference to how an individual is feeling. The employee is also likely to feel far more valued by their employer if offered this support, where EAPs help to demonstrate the importance that an employer places on health and wellbeing.
Further, the benefits of employee assistance programmes are not limited to employees. There are also significant benefits for the employer, not only because the provision of an EAP is likely to help discharge their duty of care in ensuring the health and welfare of its workforce but, by supporting individual employees in this way, this is likely to equate to increased performance and productivity from healthy, happy and well-supported staff.
Equally, the use of an effective EAP is likely to result in reduced absences from work due to work-related stress, not to mention reducing the risk of losing valuable members of staff who may otherwise feel forced to resign because they can no longer cope. As such, EAPs can go a long way towards boosting the employer brand, helping to attract and retain top talent to the business in an otherwise difficult and competitive recruitment market.
How to choose an employee assistance programme
There are various factors to consider when selecting an employee assistance programme, where the nature and quality of the service being provided to staff will be key to the effectiveness of any programme. EAPs come in all shapes and sizes, offering a range of different services, where employers must ensure that they opt for a programme that meets the needs of their workforce. In this way, the EAP will represent a worthwhile investment, in addition to other employee benefits, by helping staff to deal with any issues or symptoms that may be affecting their work, rather than this simply acting as a box-ticking exercise.
According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) — the not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of individuals and organisations concerned with employee assistance, psychological health and emotional wellbeing in the UK — the most essential function of a successful EAP is its ability to provide confidential support services, on demand, when they are needed by staff, and is free of charge to employees.
However, there are many different EAP providers, all advertising slightly different services, where each employer will need to carefully decide which programme is the right fit for their business and fits most comfortably with their existing workplace culture.
There are a number of different factors that need to be added into the mix when deciding on the best employee assistance programme for the workplace in question, including:
Timeframes for employee support
Many EAPs will offer a 24/7 telephone helpline that employees can access in urgent situations, although not all, and the waiting times for appointments between providers can also vary. Some EAPs can provide a same day service for emergency counselling sessions, where the uptake for these types of appointments could be high for employees working in an especially stressful environment. In these cases, a round-the-clock helpline and same day counselling appointment may be needed.
Many business have adapted to hybrid or remote-working since the pandemic, so where EAP services are based may no longer be a high priority for most organisations. Still, the provision of online assessments and zoom sessions, in addition to telephone support, should be taken into account. Equally, if the provision of in-person appointments is a deal breaker, the employer must ensure that the provider is local to the workplace, otherwise employees may be unable or unwilling to travel long distances. The provision of an online portal or mobile app can also help employees to easily access services or book appointments, so this may be a good feature to look for in an ESP provider.
The services offered by different EAP providers vary considerably, where employers should carefully consider which services their staff will require. For example, some providers will offer cognitive behavioural therapy in addition to counselling, as well as financial and legal advice. Other providers may offer additional services such as occupational health or private medical insurance. Employers should take the time to compare the different EAPs to ensure that they offer what they need the most.
Most EAPs are available only to employees, although employers may also want a programme that extends support to immediate family members. Personal issues at home can easily affect an employee’s performance at work, so extending support services to employee family members could be a valuable addition to the programme.
It is essential that all EAP professionals who will be dealing directly with staff hold the relevant qualifications and accreditations. Employers must therefore ensure that they choose an accredited EAP provider, staffed by appropriately qualified support workers, to ensure that their own staff are getting the best possible help. An accredited EAP provider is one that has met the relevant EAPA professional practice standards.
Most EAP providers will place limits on the number of sessions that employees can access on an annual basis. Some services may also come at an additional cost, over and above the annual fee. Employers should consider whether extra sessions or services are available, if needed by an employee, and what the additional cost would be.
Management training and support
The provision of training and coaching for managers and team leaders by the EAP provider, or the option of management referral services, can help employers to effectively manage an employee experiencing mental health issues.
The provision of good account management services, including regular meetings with the EAP provider, can also be beneficial so that the account manager is able to gain a clear understanding of the business, with the option to provide targeted support when needed, for example, during a redundancy process.
How to manage an employee assistance programme
Once an employer has selected an EAP provider, and the employee assistance programme is up and running, it is important to know how best to manage this. This is because EAPs only really have the potential to benefit employees if managed and accessed in an effective way.
The following practical tips can be used by employers to help maximise the impact of their chosen programme, in this way maximising their return on investment:
Many organisations will actively promote their EAP when a programme is first launched, but often fail to maintain this momentum. To get the most out of an EAP, employers must continue to promote its benefits to existing employees and new members of staff, not to mention in job adverts to help attract top talent to the business. This means that both existing and prospective employees should be fully informed about all of the services available and how to access these. Any return to work meetings, appraisals or performance reviews can also be a good time to champion EAPs.
When advertising the benefits of an EAP, employers should avoid the stigma-triggers often associated with mental health services. As such, organisations must carefully consider how they position their EAP to avoid perpetuating these outdated perceptions. If the wording or images used to advertise the programme focus on the negative aspects of mental health, such as “needing help” or “feeling depressed or stressed”, this may discourage uptake. By branding an EAP in a more positive way, with expressions like “feeling first class” or “finding a healthy work/life balance” , this can encourage uptake by transforming the way in which a programme is perceived by staff.
Making management referrals
Often, where the only option available to an employee to access the support needed through an EAP is by way of a self-referral, the employee may be unwilling or reluctant to do this. By introducing management referrals, where line managers or team leaders can proactively refer a member of staff if they feel that this might be helpful, this can help that person to get the necessary support. In many cases, those that need support are often the last to realise this, where management referrals will help to initiate the process where this would not otherwise happen.
Supporting employee mental wellbeing
It has long been recognised that investing in employee wellbeing results in higher performance and productivity, reduced sickness absence, and higher levels of employee engagement, where research suggests a positive link between the introduction of wellness programmes in the workplace and improved business key performance indicators. However, an EAP alone may not be enough to make a difference for most employees.
As such, it is important to bear in mind that an employee assistance programme, as a sole means of supporting staff, may not suffice in many cases. Employers must be prepared to take a more holistic approach to mental health, where an employee suffering from work-related stress may also need additional or alternative forms of support. Every case is unique, and will very much depend on the needs of the individual employee in question.
For example, in addition to or instead of counselling or treatment referrals provided through an EAP, an employee may benefit from the following support options:
- reduced working hours or a phased return to work following sick leave
- flexible hours, such as different start and finish times
- home-working, to provide the employee with a better work/life balance
- amended duties, avoiding those tasks that may be exacerbating the employee’s stress
- transfer to a different role, where the employee is no longer able to do their existing role
- providing additional help for the employee if alternative work is not available or practical
- the provision of a buddy or mentoring scheme to help boost the employee’s confidence.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants are experienced in advising employers on all aspects of workforce management, engagement and performance enhancement. This includes strategies and measures to improve productivity and morale while safeguarding employee wellbeing through the use of employee assistance programmes. For more information about how we can help your organisation, speak to us.
Employee assistance programme FAQs
What does an employee assistance programme do?
An employee assistance programme is an employer-funded scheme that enables employees to access independent and professional support on a confidential basis to address any personal or work-related problems that may be impacting their performance at work.
When can you use the employee assistance programme?
An employee can use an employee assistance programme if they have either personal problems or issues in the workplace which are affecting their performance at work. This could be because the employee feels, for example, stressed, depressed or anxious.
What services does the employee assistance programme provide for staff?
The professional support available on employee assistance programmes will vary between providers, but can include a 24/7 telephone helpline and counselling services for the employee and even their immediate family.
Do you have to pay for employee assistance programme?
The employer is responsible for the cost of any employee assistance programme, in this way employees can access independent, professional help on a confidential and cost-free basis to help support them with things like work-related stress.
Last updated: 21 February 2023