What are Employee Assistance Programmes?

By Anthony Wolny | 21st January 2018 | 12 min read

With employees increasingly suffering from stress, anxiety and depression in the modern workplace, it is evident that employer initiatives to help staff cope with challenges both at home and on the job have never been more valued or appreciated.

In a progressively digital age, many feel that they have no other choice but to succumb to the pressures of the ‘always on’ culture and mentality that both society and business environments can foster. This can be where employee assistance programmes can really come into their own – whilst a survey of HR managers found that general awareness around the existence of a workplace EAP tends to be low, once the service has been accessed, the perceived benefit of the solution was incredibly high. 22 percent of those surveyed also stated that use of their solution has increased in the past, against just 6 percent who stated that it had decreased.

It is certainly seen as a popular business solution – another survey concluded that of 156 organisations polled, over two thirds (66%) currently provide access to an EAP system within their business.

What are employee assistance programmes?

Essentially, employee assistance programmes, or ‘EAPs’ for short, provide managed access to a range of expert and mental health professionals, accessed through one central programme that provides recommendations depending on the level of need that is logged.

They aim to deliver and advise on confidential information, support, guidance and counselling on a wide range of personal or work-related issues. The service is usually available to employees 24 hours a day via telephone or online portals, but a more comprehensive model can also provide access to face-to-face counselling. 

When and why did they first originate?

It is believed that the very first EAP system originated in the USA in 1917, as part of an experiment by Macy and Co and, shortly afterwards, Northern State Power. They became more widespread in the 1940’s, as employer concerns about white-collar workers increased, and EAPs began to be used to treat mental, emotional and financial problems that were attributed to alcohol and drugs.

As their success began to be widely quantified and measured in the 1960’s, they found their way over to the UK as their focus began to widen to encompass broader workplace issues. Previously, their use had something of a narrow scope as it relied solely upon a commitment from senior management to support those with alcohol problems.

Broadening their scope to cover wider behavioural issues at work proved to be the catalyst to cement their popularity.

What areas can they be used for at work?

There are a huge number of EAPs offering different systems across the UK, and as a result, it is possible to tailor a system provision in order to provide the exact elements that you feel would be suitable for the employee demographic of your workplace. The main areas that EAPs cover within the workplace include:

  • Online counselling
  • Telephone counselling
  • Clinical or physiological basement
  • Managerial consultancy
  • Debt advice
  • Citizens advice information
  • Legal information and signposting
  • Childcare help and support
  • Carer help and support
  • Domestic violence information
  • Occupational health referral
  • Trauma support
  • Training and consultancy information

Are there high costs involved?

If you decide to invest in an EAP system for your business, it is unlikely that you will face significant costs, but it does depend on the level of initial investment that is ringfenced for the project. Costs would also depend on the number of employees that your new system would need to cover, and the breadth and depth of the solution you require.

A rough costing estimate for a telephone or online-only service might cost between £2 and £3 per employee per year, but this could rise to around £15 per year per employee for average annual running costs for a more comprehensive system, that is likely to include an element of face-to-face support. This will most likely encompass a ‘full EAP’ model, that combines 24-hour telephone support, assessment, face-to-face counselling, account management and online services.

Are there likely to be any legal or tax-related repercussions if using one?

You are unlikely to face any legal implications by using an EAP system, but you should note that simply introducing a system for staff to use will not absolve you from your other workplace wellbeing commitments. To contextualise, if you introduce an EAP to allow employees to receive help and support related to workplace stress, this does not mean that you shouldn’t make other reasonable efforts in order to reduce levels of stress as much as possible.

Similarly, it is unlikely you will face any tax implications by using an EAP. This kind of system can be regarded as a business expense, rather than a benefit in kind, as long as it satisfies HM Revenue and Customs definition of ‘welfare counselling.’ You should also ensure that the EAP services are not used by any family members or friends of your employees, unless they are directly involved in a situation for which your employee is already receiving appropriate help, support or guidance.

Why would employing the use of a programme be beneficial to my business?

Employing the use of an EAP system is a smart business move, as there are multiple ways that such a system could add huge value to your company. It has been established that EAPs have a strong role to play in supporting workplace mental health, enabling employees to access free and confidential advice and information, and providing crucial guidance on issues that have the potential to affect individual performance and attendance at work.

Personnel Today survey of HR professionals found that 66 percent stated they felt their system completely or partially justified its initial or ongoing cost. The vast majority (89%), also reported that they experienced no problems with the scheme.

The same study asked HR managers about the top issues that employees presented with when they accessed their EAP system. Workplace stress, at 70 percent, was cited as the most common. Other frequently quoted issues included; depression (57%), family problems (56%), problems with line managers (20%), workplace restructure concerns (15%), and bullying (6%).

Are they classed as a workplace benefit to employees?

Classing an EAP as a workplace benefit depends entirely on what kind of system you decide is the best fit for your workplace. For a basic telephone or internet-based system, that is entirely unrelated to any other health or wellbeing system that you may have, you would not need to classify this as a workplace benefit.

However, if your EAP system is linked to other health-related products, such as a cash plan, private medical insurance, critical illness cover, or income protection, then you may have grounds to elevate its usage to that of a benefit. 

Can they provide line manager support?

EAP’s can also provide support to line managers, producing anonymous management information to help supervisors, managers and business owners to identify and deal with any negative workplace issues. Some have even developed specialist support and guidance function that can only be unlocked by managers and business owners, including help and support for trauma, tribunal and mediation situations and services.

In a larger organisation, an EAP system could also provide a huge amount of compelling employee data surrounding usage. As long as all employee contact is kept completely confidential, and the figures that are used are purely statistical, they can provide a clear picture as to the current mental health and wellbeing profile of your workforce.

This, in turn, can allow for a targeted programme, aimed at potential problem areas such as work-related stress, bullying, harassment or low morale, to be effectively implemented to try and improve the situation. The data could also be used to help to influence a wider resulting health and wellbeing programme.

How do I decide which provider is right for my business?

This depends entirely on what you feel that your desired system should be able to do for your workforce. For example, would you want to integrate face-to-face counselling options, as well as online and telephone support? Would you like employees to be able to access support in some form 24 hours a day? What are the key personal and work-related issues that you feel you could benefit from help and support? Deciding whether your system should have a specific counselling, or wider employee wellbeing slant should help to streamline your assessment of potential system providers.

Establishing your requirements, and gaining a rough idea as to what your ideal system should look like, will provide you with a great start when you begin to look at different software providers and systems.

As well as thinking about employee assistance programmes, it also important that you are effectively managing HR processes. Take a look at our range of HR products to ensure you’re rolling out best practices.