In the new Work Foundation ‘state-of-the-industry’ report into how employers are using Employee Assistance Programmes, HR managers pointed to an ongoing stigma associated with EAPs. More often than not it’s seen as a counselling service, particularly for staff with mental health issues, putting a lid on EAPs for wider use.

It’s a situation not helped by what the HR managers in the report acknowledge as being low-level promotion of EAPs and a reliance on line managers referring their team members to use the EAP.

The reality is that EAPs aren’t only for crises, but have the potential to make an even greater impact on workplaces and employees by supporting wellbeing and resilience in our new world of work in general, coaching people to feel better able to cope, to be happier and more productive. 

It shouldn’t only be about the negatives, says Rachel Smith, Consultant at Enlighten: “EAP’s can help with positive life events such as moving home, starting a family, or preparing for retirement. It’s also a source of advice for everyday challenges like tobacco cessation, healthier lifestyles and relaxation techniques.”

Here are five areas for making more of the EAP in your organisation.

1. Re-position for prevention

Eugene Farrell, head of trauma support services, AXA PPP healthcare says: “EAPs play as much a part in preventing crises as they do in supporting employees when one occurs. By providing information and support early on, EAPs can help employees to deal more effectively with the pressures they are dealing with and help to prevent what could be a manageable issue or situation from spiralling out of control.”

“Comprehensive delivery should concentrate on a mixture of both short term and long term health and wellbeing goals in order to react to instances of crisis, and also offer preventative measures developing the overall health and wellbeing of the wider employee community by challenging and improving the working culture as a whole,” adds David Price, Group Director, Health Assured.

2. Create more champions among line managers

Jonathan Brown, RetailTRUST, Director of People and Wellbeing Services points to the importance of support from the board, highlighting the importance of the EAP as part of an overall wellbeing strategy integrated into the organisation’s culture and business plans, with KPIs and progress reported at the highest levels.

Eugene Farrell suggests: “Line managers are key to successful service promotion and, arguably the most powerful endorsement is by word of mouth from users who have had a positive experience. By taking a holistic approach to continuing to promote them. Creating a positive look and feel for what’s on offer will help to overcome people’s reluctance to use it and in turn increase uptake. Referrals from line managers can also increase utilisation – especially when combined with mental health awareness training.

3. Be clear in the use of language and branding

Diane Hope, Head of Wellbeing at Work Services at Insight Healthcare, argues that employees can be put off by the EAP title, the association with counselling and mental health, and the idea of a ‘programme’ in particular. “EAPs are also very much seen as a ‘counselling service’ by lots of organisations – so employees sometimes miss out on other services like legal advice,” she says. 

But what if employers brand the EAP as a more familiar in-house service? More problems says Rachel Smith, Consultant at Enlighten: “Usage can drop significantly as employees think the helpline is connected internally to their organisation and no longer confidential.”

“Before you go to market it is important to know what you are selling,” says Gillian Morris, Director of Professional Services, Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health (Niamh). “Equally as a customer if you have no awareness or idea what you are buying then buy in becomes problematic. In advance or as part of re-branding, it is essential therefore, to tease out and define the essential core defining elements, aims and objectives of an EAP, distinguishing between the various models. This will go some way to ensure the EAP becomes embedded in, valued by and is seen to complement existing workplace engagement and wellbeing initiatives that meet the needs of a particular employer and its workforce.”

4. Tailor to meet specific needs

“Too often EAPs are thought of as a ‘cure all’ remedy. This can particularly be seen following some of the employee court cases where employers thought that by having an EAP they would be protected against employee litigation,” argues Patrick Watt, Corporate Director at Bupa UK. “As a consequence, the product has been commoditised and providers have not invested in developing the service. We know it’s essential that clients tune into the needs of their business and engage with their people. There’s a clear need for providers to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and stay focussed on innovation, following the way in which employees interact with each other and their work.”

Diane Hope adds: “The most successful EAPs are those where the organisation works in partnership with the provider to promote and develop the service, which needs to be ongoing throughout the duration of the contract. This does require some investment in terms of time and resources from the purchasing organisation.”

5. Integrate into the wider health strategy

Few organisations currently make full use of insights from the EAP – the opportunity to use data to develop and refine their employee wellbeing strategies.

“EAPs are an important component of any health strategy but they need to be properly linked to other services such as occupational health and health & safety teams,” says Lisa Allan, CEO, OH Assist & Help Employee Assistance. “Some organisations have employee wellbeing or engagement teams which makes the work of integration more straight forward. For other companies, ensuring that the different suppliers work together is an important aim so that they contribute effectively to improve the health of the organisation.”

Gillian Morris, Director of Professional Services, Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (Niamh), says: “The benefits from an EAP are to a greater or lesser degree dependent on the extent to which the EAP becomes embedded in, and is intrinsic to, a general culture of wellbeing, enabling easy access to timely and tiered workplace solutions which understand and are tailored to meet the needs of a particular workforce. This relies on good account management, building customer relations and above all else getting to know the nuances and complexities of each business.”