Employees are facing an immeasurable amount of stress right now. As they struggle to balance their work lives, home lives and finances, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic offers the opportunity for many employees to experience a mental health issue, or a period of feeling mentally unwell.
A recent survey from Unum polled 1,210 working U.S. adults, and 46% of respondents sad ‘they have’ or ‘know someone who has’ battled a mental health issue, and those numbers were even higher among Millennials (59%) and Gen Z (64%). While mental health issues are prominent in today’s workforce, there is often low awareness of the resources available to help.
Based on another Unum report last year, 93% of HR professionals said their company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP offers third-party counseling services and resources to help employees navigate challenging life situations that affect their personal and professional lives. However, 46% of workers polled said their employer “doesn’t offer an EAP or are unsure if they do”. Something’s not working.
46% of workers polled said their employer doesn’t offer an EAP or are unsure if they do.
Something’s not working.
Here are three things to consider that might be contributing to limited awareness, poor education, and under-utilization of this valuable EAP benefit provided by employers.
Type of EAP purchased
Most businesses, especially small to midsize employers, purchase an EAP through their group life, disability and/or health carrier as a ‘value-added’ benefit. Although there are exceptions, these often include a white-labeled benefit with little-to-no plan design flexibility, communication tools and resources, or individual reporting available to employers. (For example, value-add EAPs purchased through an insurance contract often exclude crisis management services.)
“Often times, employers realize their program is limited when they experience a major incident and they don’t receive the full support they had previously expected,” says Chuck Henderson, senior national sales director at Magellan Health.
Do these limited EAP plans work? Certainly, but without an idea of utilization and value, it is difficult to determine how well they work, making it difficult to obtain executive buy-in and/or a commitment for more education.
If you are looking to enhance your EAP and design a program specific to the needs of your employees and their dependents, consider a stand-alone EAP. This type of comprehensive program, available from Magellan Health and other vendors, cannot only provide employees resources for difficult times, but can enhance employee’s emotional wellness, reduces stress, and increases productivity. “Employers can greatly benefit from a robust EAP that will deliver great value to their employees, especially during times of crisis,” said Henderson.
Since no employer is dying to leave money on the table, it’s important to note that moving in the direction of a stand-alone EAP usually ensures a credit to your premium when removing an EAP from your insurance vendor contract.
Limited education and communication to employees
It’s no wonder EAP programs are underutilized, or only tapped into in times of crisis. With the importance of communicating health plan or financial changes during the brief window of yearly open enrollment, often smaller programs like EAPs are rushed through or overlooked.
“To effectively communicate a benefit, year-round communication is an absolute must,” says Kate Grooms, Chief Engagement Officer at Grooms Benefit Solutions. “With subjects as important as mental wellbeing and work-life balance, it’s a message you should consistently keep in front of employees.”
While all EAP websites will have year-round resources for employees to access, they’ll only find those resources once they engage with the program. It’s up to the employer (or in cases of a stand-alone EAP, the vendor) to make sure and offer a reason for employees to engage.
“A weekly wellness email, monthly newsletter article, or video post to communication channels like Teams or Slack will ensure that employees keep this valuable benefit top of mind,” Grooms says. “Since the beginning of the recent coronavirus pandemic, our firm has pushed our clients to over-communicate that resources like counseling, coaching, and work-life assistance are available during this unpredictable time.”
If time and resources are limited, there is no need to be fancy. A simple cadence of emails with click-links from an HR leader will do the trick. Remind employees what is available, that services are confidential, and that they are available 24/7/365 when needed.
The stigma everyone worries about
Depression, divorce, financial trouble, legal problems, substance abuse: Whatever the reason employees may need an EAP, pretty much all of them are sensitive – and not exactly the thing a person wants to share with HR. Unum reports that 70% of employees who missed work due to mental health issues did not inform their manager or HR that this was the reason.
Employee assistance programs have evolved over the years to include benefits and resources well beyond mental health, but the stigma still exists. Almost a third (34%) surveyed felt employers should normalize the conversation around mental health to remove this often-associated stigma. People hear “mental health issues” and immediately assume ‘crazy’ or ‘weak,’ yet experts agree that to seek help is a move both rational and brave.
“Many people aren’t sure what warrants a therapy or counselling session. But in reality, most people wait until their symptoms are unbearable to act,” said clinical psychologist Nicole Massey-Hastings from Psychology Today.
The more communication and information employees receive, and the more common using EAP resources becomes, the more this traditional stigma will erode. Regularly update employees on the specifics of the benefit: How many counseling sessions are provided, what work-life resources are available, or whether legal/financial services are included, etc. By normalizing EAP usage, you can help employees overcome their own psychological barriers.
Mental health issues aren’t going anywhere soon. If you consider your benefits spend dollar for dollar, promoting the benefits of an EAP might be the best value an employer can offer its employees and their families. Enhance the awareness and education of this benefit, and the appreciation and loyalty of providing it will follow.
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