Employee Assistance Programs: An Undiscovered Gem

by Toni Sorenson, CEBS, CMS

Benefits,  Bulletin,  HR Expertise and Support

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) have been around since the 1930s when employers noticed that on-the-job drinking affected job performance and productivity. Around 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous became a movement, and employers saw that rehabilitated workers became assets again. As a result, employers established programs to deal with occupational alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse was the focus of the EAP for the next 30 to 40 years, especially after World War II. Only extremely large employers had this benefit. It was not until the early 1970s that employers noticed that other issues were keeping employees away from work or were affecting their performance. This is when the modern EAP concept began to take form, with the largest growth occurring in the 1980s and 1990s.

The EAP range of services now typically includes:

  • Family issues
  • Marriage counseling
  • Addictions
  • Legal Services
  • Financial Services
  • Employee Referrals
  • Education Services

Now let us explore why an EAP should be part of your wellness and benefit programs. According to the journal Health Affairs, the United States spent $201 billion on disorders like depression and anxiety in 2013. This was the first time mental disorders accounted for the largest expenditure of health care dollars, beating out heart conditions at $147 billion. This means that health care claims, prescription drug costs, and absenteeism are probably on the rise for your organization. Affected employees may have reduced productivity and engagement. They could become a workplace accident and in a worst-case scenario, a workplace violence incident.

About one in five Americans will experience a mental illness, and a staggering 42 million Americans live with anxiety. Another six million are bi-polar, and 16 million live with major depression. This means that mental illness could be a factor with 20 percent of your employees.

One way to assist those employees is to offer an EAP. Moreover, you may already have one. If you offer short- and long-term disability, an EAP is usually part of that benefit. Therefore, you are already paying for it. You could also have a standalone plan with a local vendor that offers up to five visits in person with a therapist or counselor. In addition, the benefits are usually extended to anyone in the employee’s household. Generally, the cost to employers is just a few dollars per employee per month. It is a small price to pay if you are able to reduce some of your health care costs and help engage your employees.

Many employees do not realize their employers offer this benefit. You will need to educate them and promote the program. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a downloadable poster you can display in break rooms and around time clocks. If you do a benefits or wellness fair each year, invite your EAP provider to participate. Make sure you have the EAP provider listed on your intranet next to your medical provider. Your EAP may even offer up some lunch-and-learns on specific mental health subjects.

This gem of a benefit can give you a great return on investment!

About the author
Toni Sorenson, CEBS, CMS

Toni Sorenson joined Employers Council in summer of 2016. Her background is in employee benefits management and corporate wellness. She holds a CEBS designation, a master’s in Organizational Leadership from CSU Global, and a bachelor's degree in Accounting from Regis University.