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Employee assistance programmes are woefully underused, so how do you get more return on your EAP spend?

Since they appeared here in the 1980s, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) have become a familiar feature of the modern UK workplace. And it’s not surprising why. When I managed a major bank’s EAP for over a decade, it was clear how important it was that our employees had access to free, confidential support when they needed it.

And yet, popular as EAPs are with employers, only 3% to 5% of the average workforce access theirs when things go wrong. Problems like debt, relationship breakdown, stress and depression are widespread in the UK today. And these are the bread and butter issues dealt with by EAPS. So why aren’t more employees using their services?

EAPs as perk versus problem solver

I think one of the main reasons for the low uptake is the limited perspective some organisations have of their EAPs. They often see them primarily as a perk for staff; something they can feature prominently in recruitment to show they’re a caring employer. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it does limit how an EAP is managed, and the expectations placed on it.

If you’re offering an EAP as a perk rather than a source of support, it’s likely you’re making it available to employees without being too concerned as to how – or if – people actually use it. I met recently with an HR manager from one business, who told me they didn’t get any usage data from their EAP whatsoever. And they weren’t overly concerned.

Businesses who get the most from their EAP spend view their programmes as more than just a staff perk. They make the EAP part of a coherent wellbeing offering and take great interest in how frequently it’s used, and what issues employees are seeking help with. The more strategic the approach a business takes to wellbeing, the greater it benefits. When combined with metrics from occupational health and sickness absence stats, EAP data can help businesses shape their wellbeing programmes to ensure they have maximum impact. It can also allow them to target areas of the business with particular wellbeing problems, or where usage levels are low.

So if your EAP usage rates are uninspiring, and you’re not making use of any data, how do you start getting more from your EAP?

Ten ways to get more value from your EAP spend

1. Promote it effectively

Often, employees simply aren’t aware their employer has an EAP – never mind being clear on the range of services they can access through it. Use leaflets, intranet and company-wide newsletter to raise awareness of your EAP and its services. But don’t think that, by doing a one-off mailshot, it’s job done. Your promotional campaigns need to be regular and ongoing, or the message won’t stick.

2. Build trust

EAPs deal with highly personal issues. If your employees don’t trust yours, they won’t seek help. The best way to build trust in your EAP is to give employees direct exposure to it. Arrange for on-site presentations to allow them to hear in detail exactly what services it can offer. This will also allow them to raise any concerns they have, particularly around confidentiality, and have them addressed properly.

3. Keep banging the drum on confidentiality

EAPs are scrupulous about confidentiality. They have to be. Trust is as big an issue for them as it is for employees, and their credibility rests on them maintaining it. Reinforce the confidentiality message in every communication and presentation. While you won’t be able to convince everyone, by constantly repeating the message, you can minimise mistrust.

4. Communicate the breadth of support your EAP can offer

EAPs are often viewed by employees primarily as providers of counselling. In fact, they usually also provide a range of practical assistance like legal advice, help with debt and support with caring issues. Also most EAPs are available 24/7, which is important for employees to be aware of as many prefer to discuss their problems outside work. Ensure that the full range of services and how they can be accessed is made clear in any publicity campaigns.

5. Push the preventative message

EAPs tend to be referred to when employees are in crisis. They have much more to offer and publicity should stress that many of the services are of greatest benefit when problems are tackled early, before employees tip over into crisis and issues become harder to resolve. This preventative role is underappreciated, and is a key reason for the low uptake of services.

6. Promote any wellbeing information your EAP offers

If your EAP has a wellbeing-focused online hub, promote this across your business. These are often rich in information and interactive tools that can help people address some issues at an early stage. It may also contain materials that help your employees look after their health and wellbeing in a proactive way. Some EAPs have apps that allow employees to access materials and services outside work. If yours has these, publicise them so your employees can make the most of them.

7. Use health and wellbeing days

If your organisation holds health and wellbeing days or roadshows, make sure your EAP has a presence at these. And if you don’t already hold them, consider creating events to tie in with key moments in the wellbeing calendar, like Mental Health Awareness Week or National Stress Awareness Day. These can be a great way of showcasing your EAP, as well as raising awareness of common issues affecting your employees.

8. Switch key people on to your EAP

Often the best way to improve employee uptake of your EAP is to boost awareness of it among people in your business who employees tend to approach when they’re struggling. Target your HR and occupational health departments, as well as your organisation’s line managers and trades unions if you have them. Give them a comprehensive understanding of your EAP, what it offers and how it works, and they’ll likely refer staff with confidence.

9. Demand more from your EAP data

Whilst EAPs operate confidentially, they can usually provide you with anonymised data on the overall state of your employees’ wellbeing. So if you’re not getting much detail on how your EAP’s services are being used, explore what they can give you. The data should enable you to identify areas where uptake is low or non-existent, allowing you to promote it to employees who might not be aware it exists. This data can also highlight areas of your business experiencing issues like greater-than-normal stress levels, enabling you to offer some targeted intervention.

10. Get feedback on impact

EAPs measure the impact of their interventions. If you aren’t receiving feedback on the effectiveness of their services, ask for it. This could take the form of measures of improvement before and after counselling, or how many people returned to work from sickness following support. Find out what reports your EAP can provide, as they may be translatable into return on investment data – always useful to have when demonstrating the value of your EAP to the wider organisation.

Getting the most from your EAP

At a recent wellbeing conference, I spoke to the senior manager responsible for developing the wellbeing strategy for one of the UK’s big banks. She explained how a carefully planned campaign had boosted usage of their EAP dramatically, and it’s now being used by more than 10% of the workforce.

Promoting your EAP effectively, and using its usage and impact data wisely will maximise the value you get from having it. The great thing about this is that not only is your business getting a better return on its EAP spend, more of your employees are getting the support they need as well – good news for everyone.