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A Deep Dive Into Employee Assistance Programs

Learn more about EAPs, what they are, their advantages, ROI, and their limitations.

When your employees thrive, your organization benefits — they perform better, have lower turnover rates, and take fewer sick days. Companies have long known that focusing on mental well-being leads to happier employees and an improved bottom line, and instituting well-being benefits and policies is quickly becoming necessary in today’s marketplace.

In fact, a recent survey found that 80% of workers would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employees’ mental health. More and more employers now realize that building mental health benefits into their compensation packages is vital for employee retention and engagement.

Although employee access programs (EAPs) are a common way to provide mental health support, EAPs often struggle to meet the needs of employees due to long wait times to see a provider, lack of culturally centered care, and the poor experience that they provide. As a result, EAPs often have low adoption rates and poor clinical outcomes.

To help your organization assess whether EAPs are still the right solution for your team, we've provided an in-depth overview that will help you weigh the different programs available and their limitations. We've also included information on how the future of mental health care is evolving to meet the needs of a modern workforce.


What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?

An employee assistance program is a voluntary work-based program that provides employees with confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referral, management consultation, and coaching services. EAPs address employees' personal and work-related issues that can adversely impact their work performance. 

These programs can address various personal stressors, including financial, social, substance use, mental health concerns, work relationships, etc. The goal of an EAP is to resolve issues before they impact work performance. 

With this goal in mind, they have the potential to help organizations avoid the negative effects of workplace stress and maintain high-performance levels. However, the success of an EAP depends widely on the adoption rate of the program and if the services available meet the needs of employees. 

What Are the Types of Employee Assistance Programs?

Different types of EAPs exist to help employers find the best solution for their location and workplace conditions. How the program works for employees depends heavily on the type of EAP you choose. These are the most common types of employee assistance programs.

In-House Programs

Large organizations typically use in-house programs with service providers on-site to assist employees. These services can range widely. 

Some in-house programs may feature an on-site therapist, while others may include child care and fitness centers at work. This can mean that in-house EAPs can be very expensive, especially for those with new infrastructure to provide services.

External Programs

Outsourced EAPs may be used when employers don't have the resources to implement in-house programs. An external EAP provides employees, and their family members, access to a toll-free number or website to connect with a third-party company to arrange services. After intake, employees refer to a specialized network of EAP providers for assistance.

Blended Programs

Choosing between in-house and external can be restrictive for some organizations. A blended EAP is a combination of housed and outsourced services. 

This solution could allow an employee to choose between meeting with an in-house employee or using the vendor EAP network. In theory, a blended EAP can help address some barriers to care. 

Peer-Based Programs

A less common solution, peer-based EAPs provide support through coworkers. This program educates and trains employees to provide specific types of support. 

After training, peers and coworkers provide education, training, assistance, and referrals. It's worth noting that this type of program could be slower to get off the ground.

Member Assistance Programs 

A member assistance program (MAP) provided by a union can support a wide range of services for employees and their dependents. MAPs typically provide prevention, problem identification, referral, and counseling services. However, many companies aren't members of a union, so your organization may not be eligible for a MAP.

Advantages of EAPs

Now that we’ve defined the program and its various types, it’s time to look at an EAP’s benefits. They’re outlined below.

Employee Assistance Programs Contribute to Employee Well-Being

When used as intended, an EAP can improve employees' well-being, increase engagement, reduce absences, and improve performance. A well-rounded EAP can address a variety of issues, including:

  • Social relationships
  • Family situations
  • Substance use 
  • Traumatic events
  • Mental wellness support
  • Education programs
  • Career transition

Employers can decrease employee stress by providing resources to help employees navigate difficult life events, potentially improving work performance. 

Wellness Increases Performance at Work

A recent National Institute of Health study revealed that overall stress directly affects work performance. High stress levels are consistently associated with lower productivity levels. 

Employees using EAPs can help reduce personal stress and consequently improve work performance. By assisting employees in reducing their stress levels, EAPs can reduce absenteeism, increase presenteeism, and decrease stress in the workplace.

EAPs Can Improve the Company's ROI

By addressing workplace issues and personal stress, EAPs can help improve employee engagement. When a study evaluated employees before and after receiving counseling from EAP services, the results revealed important improvements, including:

  • Increased presenteeism: Personal issues making it difficult for employees to concentrate on work dropped by half.
  • Increased engagement: Active disengagement among employees dropped by 9%.
  • Decreased workplace distress: Feelings of dread when going to work dropped by 9%.

A Modern Health study conducted by Forrester Consulting revealed that 74% of employees want their employer to care about their mental health. By providing high-quality mental health benefits, employers can meet the needs of employees and improve retention as a result. 

Disadvantages of EAPs 

In theory, EAPs can dramatically improve stress-related issues that affect work performance. However, they are severely limited in their abilities to assist the modern workforce, where wellness and mental health are at the forefront. These disadvantages of EAPs prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Focused on Short-Term Support

EAPs typically limit the number of sessions an employee can have with a provider. Programs often provide eight or fewer counseling sessions per mental health concern. 

Instead of focusing on long-term wellness, they focus on short-term crisis care. Nearly 80% of employees believe that they can successfully avoid severe mental health conditions or clinical-level care if they routinely prioritize their mental health. Yet, EAPs fail to provide modalities of care that support this option.

EAPs Are Limited to Traditional Therapy Models

EAPs provide employees with access to counseling. However, they fall short when they don't provide choices. EAPs are generally limited to traditional therapy models that only offer 1:1 therapy. 

Yet, research shows that fewer than 44% of employees prefer one-on-one therapy as their preferred mode of care. Most employees aren't interested in adopting the program without options for self-guided care, culturally centered care, blended care models with online options, and group sessions.

A Lack of Reporting for Analysis

Accurate data is vital to estimate the success of any program. Since EAPs have disjointed systems, there is a lack of reporting for employers on adoption, engagement, and ongoing participation. 

EAPs typically have low adoption rates. To camouflage these statistics, EAP providers typically frame ROI potential with reports that reflect the ROI of a single employee (e.g., a $3 return for every $1 spent for each employee). 

ROI calculations for EAPs also fall short due to practices that rely on short time periods and over-emphasis on the amount of savings contributed by avoiding other health care costs. As a result, it's challenging for employers to find a way to get accurate data to reflect a true ROI. Such cloudy data can make it impossible for an organization to understand how well the investment pays off clearly.

Employers Don't Have Control Over the Quality of Care

Most employers work with external EAPs. As such, the employer has no control over how care is provided. External EAPs are solution providers that contract with independently licensed clinicians (like social workers, psychologists, and therapists). 

These networks are often based on availability, price, and location. As such, quality of care may be fragmented and fail to provide employees with standardized care.

EAPs Don't Have the Ability to Customize Care Options

While EAPs offer some choices, they can't customize care effectively. An EAP might allow you to choose between a Fitbit program or a Headspace app. It doesn't differentiate between levels of care or types of therapy. 

Every employee should access mental health care that best fits their needs. While an employee with high acuity needs might require 1:1 therapy and medications, another employee with lower acuity needs is more likely to be best supported by self-paced programs or coaching.

The Future Is Mental Health Benefits

Due to low utilization, limited care options, and lack of control over the quality of care, many employers are replacing EAPs with mental health benefits. These evidence-based and innovative programs provide various care options geared toward mental wellness alongside crisis support for your employees.

Modern Health, like many EAPs, offers one-on-one clinical therapy globally when needed, a 24/7 phone line, onsite crisis support, and work-life services. It sets the bar higher with various mental health benefits focused on long-term wellness. For example, emotional well-being, movement, and mindfulness programs can be combined for a personalized user experience that allows employees to participate in self-guided care that meets their individual needs. 

Implementing user-friendly digital programs can break down barriers to care and allow employees to easily access onsite counseling, work-life services (like child care and financial support), and supervisory services (to assist with addressing workplace conflict, employee performance, and more). Employers can also have more control over the quality of care with a solution that guarantees uniform certification of coaches and other professionals within the program.

As workplace mental health becomes a bigger priority for employers, selecting a mental health solution that assists in creating an inclusive workspace and a culture of well-being is vital. By ensuring your mental health solution supports the needs of all employees with a multifaced approach to care, you can break down barriers to care, achieve greater adoption, and recognize improved results. 

With engagement rates as high as 20% (compared to the average of 5.5% recognized by EAPs), employers can maximize their ROI with increased presenteeism and engagement and reduced absenteeism and turnover. However, choosing a mental health program that provides highly effective benefits and a clearly defined ROI for your organization can be challenging. 

We're here to help. To learn more about how modern mental health benefits compare to traditional EAPs, talk with one of our experts about improving mental health benefits for your employees or request a demo.