Did you know that many workplaces in Australia offer their employees free, confidential short-term psychological counselling? Some may also offer other services, helping out with matters such as nutrition, sleep and personal finances, or legal, career and family issues. In many cases, this assistance is offered via something called an Employee Assistance Program (or EAP for short), which is designed to boost the health and wellbeing of a workforce.
What is an EAP?
According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association of Australasia (EAPAA), an EAP is “a work-based early intervention aimed at the early identification and/or resolution of both work and personal problems that may adversely affect performance”. Problem areas could include “relationships, family, financial, substance abuse or emotional concerns”.
EAPAA president Lana Schwartz told Canstar the use of EAPs in Australia is widespread. All government departments are required to have them, and most large organisations have also adopted a scheme. Ms Schwartz said the work of EAPAA members reaches the workplaces of between five million and six million employees nationwide.
“EAPs are very common in large to medium organisations,” she said. “Often smaller companies – those with fewer than 20 employees – don’t have a regular EAP, but may access one if a critical incident happens.”
EAPs do not only help people struggling with work problems – Ms Schwartz said 60% of issues dealt with via the programs are of a personal nature.
She said while many companies say they instituted an EAP because they care for the wellbeing of their staff, it was also often a good business decision, because it had the potential to increase productivity and engagement of employees.
“We know that people who attend EAP sessions are generally distracted 30% of the time when they are at work, and they tend to take quite a lot of sick leave – 2.5 days on average – before calling on a program,” she said. “And then there is the issue of ‘presenteeism’ (people turning up for work when ill).
“When people do access EAP, they can return to work more easily, and usually have fewer sick days and are more mentally present at work when they are there.”
She said the benefits in productivity meant that EAPs had “anywhere from a 5:1 to a 15:1” return on investment, according to EAPAA research.
How do Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) work?
Schemes vary from company to company, Ms Schwartz said, but typically they are short-term assistance of between three and six sessions with a qualified professional per employee. On occasion, some companies may allow more sessions, with approval from a manager. However, if longer-term treatment is found to be warranted, the employee is usually referred on to another professional for ongoing support.
The most common service offered under EAPs is psychological counselling, Ms Schwartz said. There are often also special services just for managers. However, she said more companies are opting to add other services such as nutrition, sleep counselling and relationship mediation to their EAP offerings. Legal help is also beginning to feature in many EAPs, covering areas such as family law.
Usually, employees access the program by calling their organisation’s EAP provider directly. They do not need to tell their employer they are doing so. However, Ms Schwartz said there were some schemes – although they were not common – where the services were only available if a manager referred employees to them.
During that first call, the EAP provider talks to the employee to ascertain what sort of assistance is required, and then sets up a phone, face-to-face or video meeting for the employee with a counsellor. After the session, the employee makes subsequent appointments, according to the company’s allowable limit.
Employees do not have to pay for the service, Ms Schwartz added.
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Are EAPs really confidential?
Yes. Ms Schwartz said that EAP sessions are covered by the same privacy laws as other health professionals, and that included not disclosing the names of those attending, nor the nature of the issue being addressed, to employers. She said that EAP providers do pass on general data, for billing purposes, but that this data is stripped of anything that might indicate which employee is using the service.
She said that in certain rare circumstances, an EAP provider is legally compelled to reveal information to health or legal authorities, such as in circumstances where there is a risk of imminent harm or under subpoena from a court.
Any tips for managers wanting to suggest to an employee that they use an EAP?
Ms Schwartz said suggesting employees use an EAP service could be challenging, but is usually worth the effort.
“The easiest thing a manager can do is say ‘It looks like something is troubling you. We have this support (EAP) you might be interest in,” she said. “And I encourage managers to use the programs themselves – there is a great service called ‘manager’s assist’ in a lot of EAPs – then they can tell an employee that they know it’s confidential, professional and it’s free.”
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How can companies ensure they are getting the best from their EAP provider?
Ms Schwartz said that the most successful EAPs are “a true partnership model” between the company and the EAP provider. She said it is important that an organisation thoroughly understands what its EAP offers, and then works to engage its managers in the process, so they can see the tools available for them to use. Then it was a case of engaging the rest of the workforce, so they know how to access the program.
“The company needs to champion the service right down to all staff levels, so that everyone can understand how it can help them,” she said. “EAPs are ever-changing, so this should be an ongoing process.”