Employee Assistance Programs often referred to as EAPs, are employer-enacted programs for helping employees overcome personal issues. Employers enact these programs to provide their staff with support and well-being, both at work and in their personal lives.

According to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), over 97% of large companies in the United States offer EAPs. Despite this statistic and the associated value of EAPs, they remain underused by the majority of the workforce. According to a 2016 report by Chestnut Global Partners, only a mere 6.9% of employees in North America utilized the EAP service. In support of this statistic, the National Business Group on Health, based in Washington D.C., found that the median utilization of EAP services in 2018 was 5.5%.

In recent years, employers have focused their EAP programs to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. They have instituted wellness programs, flexible working hours, yoga and meditation classes, and more. However, again, only a tiny proportion of their employees use these programs to better their health.

In this article, we will examine some of the reasons why an employee may not be taking advantage of the EAP programs that employers offer, and provide businesses with an alternative to EAP programs.

Lack of Awareness

One of many reasons that employees don’t seek out EAP programs when they require help is because most employees don’t realize they exist. This lack of awareness may be a result of several factors: inadequate communication about the program from human resources, a lack of EAP understanding within top employees in the company, or lack of proper signposting.

Lack of Education

Many employees may realize that their employers provide EAP assistance, however, the exact ways in which an employee may utilize this service may be lost in translation. For example, many employees have the misconception that EAP services are only for people with mental health issues or for those with problems surrounding substance abuse.

EAP-Associated Stigma

One potential but rarely studied barrier to the use of EAPs is its negative association with stigma. This stigma is similar to that observed within psychological and mental health services. A 2019 study by Workreach Solutions suggested that employees sometimes are aware of EAP programs, and how they may help them, but may choose not to use them due to perceived stigma concerning receiving help. This was seen, in particular, among male workers.

Questioning Confidentiality Assurances

Employee concerns about confidentiality further reduce the effectiveness of EAP programs. There is a constant fear that counselors from the EAP program may share confidential information discussed during their sessions with the employers. Employees sometimes find it hard to believe the employer’s assurances that everything discussed with counselors via the EAP program, for example, will remain confidential. EAP participation is lower in companies where employees don’t trust their management.

Lack of Ongoing Support

Several EAPs provide short-term counseling to employees, to identify problems that may affect job performance. Wherever deemed necessary, the employee is then referred to an outside organization, facility, or program for ongoing assistance. Another issue with EAPs is that there is a maximum quota of support that an employee is entitled to. When this quota is all used up, there is no guarantee that further help will be available.

Oversimplification of Complex Employee Needs

Usually, most employees will seek assistance via an EAP for stress (related to work, family, or finances) and relationships. Basic EAP plans that most employers may subscribe to do not go deep enough to support the complex needs of the employee; the employee’s needs may be far more than what the EAP may provide for. There is usually a need for a multi-disciplinary team offering more than the basic level of advice to these employees.

Misunderstanding about Costs

Since EAPs have a healthcare component to them, many employees are understandably confused about whether they will be responsible for copays and deductibles. Fearing they will be unable to afford counseling sessions, they are deterred from finding the help that they need. The perceived barrier of cost also drives down EAP usage.

Reactive, not proactive

EAPs are often reactive rather than proactive. This means that an employee was possibly feeling incredibly stressed for a while before they sought out any help from their employers. Although EAPs are helpful at a stage when the employee actually requires help, it would be in the best interests of the employee and the employer to prevent the need for such treatment by putting some prevention strategies in place.

It comes as no surprise that the pandemic has led to feelings of burnout, social isolation/loneliness, stress, and more. It’s likely that the number of employees that seek out these services has gone up mainly due to the pandemic. Employers have adopted and expanded their EAP services to offer their services with social distancing and teleworking standards, but is it enough and what’s the alternative?

An Alternative to EAP Programs

A commonly sought-out alternative to an EAP program are corporate wellness programs. Wellness programs promote employee health and productivity and reduce health-related costs. As we suggested in our previous blog post, a wellness program offers three key services: screening to identify health risks, lifestyle management to reduce risks to health and wellbeing, and disease management to support people with chronic conditions.

Employees require a personalized approach to health and wellbeing that is tailored to their own needs and their schedules. Wellness programs, such as Zillion’s RestoreResilience, target stress, anxiety, sleep, nutrition, and exercise without the stigma sometimes associated with EAPs. Employees are able to benefit from preventative measures, rather than reactive solutions following a crisis. Features like our one-to-one coaching sessions, community groups, and 24/7 in-app support, allow for a personalized approach to wellbeing through small changes that last a lifetime.