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Employee Assistance Program

Is the modern workplace more stressful than ever before? If you keep up on reports about factors like employee burnout and high turnover rates, you could certainly draw that conclusion. On the other hand, it might also be possible that today’s working world only seems more stressful than it has in the past because we now have a greater understanding of the impacts and causes of mental distress in the workplace, including the ways those factors can adversely affect performance. That is a key reason that more and more employers have begun offering assistance services to employees and managers.

What is an employee assistance program (EAP)?

An employee assistance program (EAP) offers confidential resources for employees dealing with personal problems and issues that do not fall under the usual jurisdiction of a human resources department. The first EAP programs in the U.S. were launched in the 1940s and focused on helping address problems related to alcohol in the workplace. These programs have become much more prevalent since then— in fact, most federal agencies have been legally mandated to provide EAP services to their employees since the 1970s.

EAPs have since expanded to address a broad range of mental, emotional, and behavioral health care issues. While the specific structure of an EAP will vary from employer to employer, the program usually takes the form of a network that provides workers with referrals to experts in a variety of healthcare fields, including counselors, therapists. An EAP may also be referred to as an intervention program and is usually included as part of an employee benefits package.

Who qualifies for an EAP?

Again, the specifics of EAP coverage vary by employer, but generally speaking any full-time employee who is covered by an employer’s healthcare and benefits plan can make use of the employee assistance program. All EAP services are entered into voluntarily by employees and are delivered free of charge, although engaging some services such as legal advice or financial management beyond an initial consultation may require payment.

It is important to note that, while employee assistance program services are often included as part of an employee health plan, an EAP is not a substitute for health insurance. In some cases an EAP counselor may refer an employee to a physical or mental health care professional. In those instances, it is up to the employee whether to follow through on that recommendation. While most EAP programs are primarily referral oriented, some do offer in-house options for treatment and counseling. Employers that offer direct counseling and treatment services to their workforces are subject to regulations including the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA).

What is covered under an EAP?

The overall purpose of an EAP is to assist employees through a wide range of personal issues and life challenges. As noted earlier, the first employee assistance programs were focused on reducing workplace problems associated with alcohol abuse. That remains a key area of focus for modern EAPs, but the services provided by these programs have expanded along with a wider societal understanding of mental, emotional, and behavioral health and how those considerations impact the workplace. EAP services are often delivered over the phone or in face-to-face counseling or advisory sessions, and may also include telehealth services like video counseling or online sessions conducted via email or chat.

The areas covered by EAPs vary between different employers, but some areas that are commonly addressed include:

Substance abuse

Most EAPs provide referrals to substance abuse counseling for employees who struggle with addiction or abuse issues related to alcohol, drugs, and other substances, or who have family members dealing with those issues.

Mental health care

Many employee assistance programs offer mental health services, either through direct appointments with EAP counselors or referrals to mental health providers. These services can be helpful for workers dealing with depression, trauma, anxiety, grief, and many other mental and emotional concerns.

Financial management

Your employer’s EAP services may include referrals to financial advisors and other professionals who can provide counseling about improving employees’ financial well-being. That might include issues like:

  • Debt management
  • Setting budgets
  • Loan consolidation
  • General spending habits

Legal advice

Most EAP networks include referrals to attorneys and lawyers who can assist employees with legal advice on issues including:

  • Wills
  • Family law
  • Bankruptcy
  • Credit counseling
  • Civil and small claims court issues
  • Contract management
  • Probate issues
  • Many other legal issues

Child care and elder care

EAP counselors and advisors often address issues related to providing care for family members. That might include children, elderly relatives, people with disabilities, or anyone in a family who requires extra care. EAPs often also provide services for dealing with family planning, conflict mediation, and dealing with physical or emotional abuse within a household.

Career counseling

The everyday demands of the workplace can be highly stressful in and of themselves. Many EAP programs strive to keep employees engaged and satisfied in their roles, and even offer guidance for those interested in seeking a different career path. That might entail services as diverse as:

  • Creating a professional development plan
  • Mediating conflicts between coworkers
  • Pursuing on-the-job training and education options
  • Planning a career change
  • General workplace stress management

What are the workplace benefits of an EAP?

While an employee assistance program focuses on providing individualized services, it offers many overall benefits to your workforce as well. Some of the company-wide advantages of an EAP include:

  • Increased employee engagement and productivity
  • Reduced burnout and turnover rates, increased employee retention
  • Teaching employees and managers more effective stress management techniques
  • Reduced absenteeism and fewer unplanned absences
  • Fewer accidents and errors in the workplace
  • Reduced health and safety risks, including workplace violence
  • Better preparedness for emergencies and crisis management
  • Lower overall healthcare costs due to emotional and mental health issues
  • Smoother transitions during periods of layoffs or restructuring
  • Reduced workload for human resources managers who may otherwise be tasked with handling EAP-related issues

By offering a comprehensive employee assistance program, employers can also demonstrate their commitment to a safer, healthier work environment. That type of dedication can help with recruitment and hiring efforts, retaining high-quality employees, and building a reputation as a workplace that cares about the mental, physical, and emotional health of its workforce.

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