The first employee assistance programs (EAPs) were created in the 1930s to help employees manage their personal challenges and remain productive at work. But while they’re nothing new to the benefits world, EAPs remain a bit of a mystery. These employer-sponsored programs offer valuable resources at no cost to employees and are highly relevant to today’s work and life stressors, yet usage rates remain low.
To increase employee awareness and drive participation rates:
- Explain the wide array of offerings.
- Personalize it for employees and dependents.
- Bundle resources into smaller chunks.
- Promote it with proactive, year-round communications.
Explain the offerings
The simple fact is that many employees just aren’t aware of their EAPs. Nearly 80% of organizations offer an EAP, and yet fewer than half (46%) of employees know about their employer’s EAP offering, according to Human Resources Executive magazine.
And awareness is just half the battle. Many employees choose not to use their EAP, with typical utilization rates between 3% and 6%. In the early years, EAPs were primarily marketed as a resource for alcohol and substance use issues. They later expanded to help with serious mental health challenges. Despite the value of both of those offerings, many employees have not been ready to acknowledge a need for help or have been fearful about people finding out about their struggles. (Later, we’ll go over tips for assuring employees of confidentiality.)
The early focus on alcohol and mental health challenges may have given rise to a stigma that EAPs are mainly an option for people facing major health issues. Although mental health and substance use offerings can be invaluable and should still be communicated, it’s important to broaden the appeal and let your employees know about the many resources available in your EAP. Tout the preventive measures and services that can help your employees manage their health, and save time and money.
Check with your EAP provider for full details, but many programs provide services like:
- Financial education (budgeting, credit card debt, retirement savings)
- Anxiety and stress management
- Workplace disputes and conflict resolution
- Legal advice (wills, adoption, divorce, child custody)
- Individual, couples and family counseling
- Caregiving resources and referrals (elder care, child care)
- Physical health tips (nutrition, sleeping, smoking cessation, exercise)
- Grief assistance
Providing the full picture of offerings, along with real-life examples that are pertinent to your workforce, will help employees understand how the EAP can support their needs.
Personalization and family involvement
Too often, employers mention the EAP during open enrollment, provide a website or phone number, and leave it at that. Instead, personalize your offerings so that your EAP relates to the lives and needs of your employees.
Link resources to current and life events that your employees may be experiencing, such as:
- Tackling a stressful work project
- Maintaining healthy habits while traveling
- Buying a home or relocating to a new city
- Dealing with a child leaving the house
- Transitioning to retirement
Gathering data and demographic information on your workforce can help you pinpoint useful services for individuals or groups of employees. For example, this might include:
- Employees with school-age children
- Workers nearing retirement age
- High-stress periods in your organization’s work cycle
Even if an offering isn’t immediately applicable to an employee, it still reinforces the EAP as a resource and increases awareness of its services.
If your EAP is available to employees’ dependents, be sure to communicate offerings directly to and for dependents as well. One way to reach dependents directly is through home mailings. Again, try to link these communications to life events like marriage or the birth of a child.
If home mailings aren’t in the budget, email your employees about the EAP resources available for their partners, children and other dependents. Employees might not even realize that your EAP program could help them deal with their teen’s social pressures or find a local tutor.
Bundle your offerings
Organizations have also found success by bundling EAP services into smaller, more digestible communications. Instead of directing employees to a website or giving them a handbook with the full list of information, you can choose one topic at a time and send them out in bite-size offerings. For someone whose child is moving across the country to attend a university, you might package a student readiness kit that offers tips on:
- Establishing independence
- Alcohol use and peer pressure
- Managing homework and a job
- Loneliness, depression and other mental health issues
This can be another entrance point to the EAP. As your parent employees explore the kit, they may find useful information for themselves. In addition, you can offer direct, complementary information to parent employees on dealing with separation anxiety or finding activities to help replace time spent on childrearing.
Formats for bundled information might include:
- Email series
- Topic-specific webpages
- Employee testimonials
- Online courses
- Infographics and posters
Whenever possible, combine the above elements. For example, managers could use team meetings as an opportunity to hand out flyers with information on specific issues, like managing stress, and applicable resources provided by your EAP. Having a manager or an employee willing to champion the program and share how EAP services have benefited them or their family might be more impactful than simply telling employees about the EAP. Also be sure to list multiple access points on any handouts, including a website, phone number and app for your EAP.
Consistent, proactive communication
It’s important to communicate about your EAP on a proactive basis, instead of offering it as a solution for problems that have already occurred.
Communication opportunities might include:
- Telling employees about the EAP during onboarding and annual open enrollment
- Keeping EAPs top of mind and easily accessible through home mailings, magnets, posters, emails, company newsletters and other avenues
- Encouraging employees to download an EAP app, if available, for smartphone access
- Putting out a call for company leaders, supervisors and employees to share their EAP success stories
- Inviting your EAP vendor to give presentations on new and existing resources
- Providing a monthly email that answers frequently asked questions about your EAP (Ask employees for suggestions to include on future lists.)
In addition to highlighting available resources, use your communications to clarify details your employees may not understand about EAPs. For example, they may not be aware that resources are free for them and their dependents. Explain that there are no copays or deductibles.
Be very explicit about the confidential nature of your EAP. As noted earlier, many employees are hesitant to seek help because they think it might be viewed negatively by colleagues and managers, hurt their chances of a promotion or put their job security at risk.
To ease your employees’ privacy concerns, communicate confidentiality details such as:
- Nobody needs to ask a manager or human resources for permission to use the EAP. The entire process can be anonymous.
- Identifying information is never shared with your organization or anyone outside the EAP.
- Most EAPs are subject to privacy, security and breach notification rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
When to introduce your EAP
There is no wrong time to start promoting your EAP, but the current employment landscape provides a unique opportunity to highlight its offerings. The global impact of the pandemic has raised the profile of mental health issues and demonstrated that everyone needs assistance at some point in their lives. Use this time to create a workplace culture of openness to talk about mental and physical health issues, the benefits of finding support and how your EAP can help.
To find an EAP or strategize ways to maximize your current offerings, talk to your insurance broker or benefits adviser.