What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? (Definition) | Built In (2024)

An employee assistance program (EAP) is a professional service that helps employees address issues that may affect work performance. These issues may be taking place inside or outside of the workplace. Common services offered address mental health, financial advice, family conflict management and legal services.

EAP services are free for employees to use and not billed through insurance. In most cases, employers partner with a third-party provider and offer EAP services as part of a comprehensive wellness package (along with health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance and more). In some cases, EAP services are also available to immediate family members of the employee.

An important element of an EAP is confidentiality. EAPs are subject to HIPAA rules and therefore no personal or sensitive health information can be disclosed to the employer.

EAPs are not mandatory for employees to use; they are a voluntary option to use as needed.

Are Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) Confidential?

Yes, EAPs are confidential. While high-level participation statistics are often made available to the employer, including the number of employees who’ve used the EAP’s services and a breakdown of which category of services are used, no personally identifiable employee information or information of specific exchanges are ever shared with the employer. This allows individuals to be open and honest without fear of jeopardizing their relationship with colleagues, managers or their overall employment status.

How Do Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) Work?

Typically, the human resources or people management department will communicate and distribute EAP information to employees. This information will include the specific scope and terms of services provided as well as the EAP resource contact information and terms of confidentiality. An example of a term may be something like: The EAP includes up to six one-hour sessions with a counselor or specialist by way of phone, in person or video conference. These channels to EAP resources are often open 24/7.

Together, the employer and EAP determine the exact scope or set of services provided to employees. Services can be bundled or customized based on anticipated or communicated employee needs.

Services Offered by Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

  • Mental health counseling for stress, anxiety, depression or bereavement
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Workplace conflicts
  • Financial planning
  • Career planning
  • Home care assistance
  • Legal assistance

The EAP may also offer a knowledge bank, list of relevant pre-recorded videos or helpful articles to read.

Related Reading From Built In Experts4 Ways to Create an Inclusive Employee Experience

What Are the Benefits of an Employee Assistance Program?

Employees Have Quick, Direct Access to Experts

From a leadership perspective, EAPs allow managers to offer team members appropriate resources and specialists instead of trying to address issues for which they have no qualifications. Employees may bring up family, home or other personal issues with their managers that are outside the scope of their manager’s expertise.

Employees Access Hard-to-Reach Services

Employees can access resources to which they might not otherwise have access. For example, mental health, tax planning or nanny assistance services may not otherwise be affordable to some employees.

Demonstrates Employee Care

Employees can develop a feeling that their employer cares about their well-being. An employer who includes an EAP in their overall benefits package demonstrates their empathy for employees’ lives outside of work.

Better Employee Performance

Addressing a person’s holistic health and well-being helps them perform better at work. If an individual is preoccupied or worried about a family situation, they can’t focus on their job. Employers who help employees address these issues lead to increased employee attendance, retention, employee morale and productivity.

What Are the Risks of an Employee Assistance Program?

Lack of Employee Use

If employees are not aware of an EAP available to them, they may not use it. Even if employees are aware, they may be hesitant to make use of it due to the perceived stigma around asking for help (especially regarding mental health issues). To mitigate this, employers should communicate EAP information frequently and through multiple channels.

Poor Services

An EAP may provide low-quality services. Employers should conduct thorough due diligence when deciding which EAP to partner with and perform ongoing quality checks.

Employees Become Too Reliant

Employees may become too reliant on EAP services. Perhaps employees rely on the EAP for a topic that is best addressed by long-term care (vs. short-term counseling) or try to extract services that aren’t part of the program. Employers can help prevent this by ensuring EAP information is clear on what the program is, and is not, designed to do. A good EAP will also have a strong referral network and be able to refer someone to a longer-term care specialist as needed.

Employee Misuse

Employees may call in with fictional stories. Because the program is confidential, this misuse can be anonymous, which makes it difficult to track and address directly. Employers should stress the importance of integrity when using these systems because abusing the system or services may result in the program becoming unavailable. If the company can find a direct association with an employee who is misusing the program, that person may experience harsh repercussions.

Employer Cost

EAPs are an additional cost to employers. Companies should track health insurance costs after putting an EAP in place and compare them to previous time periods. Often, the decrease in health insurance claims (especially in the mental health category) will offset the additional cost of the EAP.

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How to Make Employee Assistance Programs Successful

Build Awareness

Make sure employees know from day one of onboarding that EAP services are available. Remind employees through various touch points (all-company meetings, team meetings, all-staff emails, etc.). Include the various types of services available. An employee may remember that there’s a suicide prevention line but not that there are career coaches available.

Make It easy to Access

Make using EAP services quick and easy. If employees think it’s going to be a long, arduous process full of paperwork and wait times to access the services, they may forgo them.

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Remove Stigma

There is still shame associated with overcoming mental health issues for many people. Ensure leadership and management throughout the organization speak about using EAP services openly and positively. Encourage team members that it’s a sign of strength to ask for help and that management cares about the team’s well-being. Importantly, follow up with support and motivation if a team member shares they have reached out to someone through the EAP.

Address Confidentiality Concerns

Employers need to make sure employees know exactly what information will be shared and what information will stay private when using EAP services.

Let’s say there’s a quarterly all-company meeting. Each of the C-Suite business leaders has a portion of the meeting to report out how their business unit did the previous quarter. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the chief revenue officer (CRO), who had general anxiety before the pandemic, experienced panic attacks due to the uncertainty and unrest. Unsolicited, he uses a portion of his time slot to talk about feeling unsettled, as he assumes many people were, and shares that he reached out to the available EAP resources. He doesn’t go into specifics, but he emphasizes it was easy to get in touch with someone and he found it very beneficial. He ends by saying he chose to share this with the group because he wanted to encourage others to use the EAP, but notes if he hadn’t said anything, his boss (the CEO) would not have known.

This small gesture reminds all staff members that EAP services are available, they’re easy to use, even C-Suite executives use them and that confidentiality is retained at the highest levels.

Employee Assistance Program Use Cases

Bereavement Counseling

Susie manages a team. A close family member of hers recently passed away unexpectedly. Her work performance is declining. She is finding it difficult to focus at work and to lead her team as she normally does. Susie decides to get help. She contacts the EAP and sets up a video call with a bereavement counselor the next day. She and the counselor talk about some of the initial stages of grief and emotions surrounding it. They come up with some coping mechanisms she can use at work. Susie gets the contact info to several other longer-term counselors if Susie chooses to seek extended counseling. Susie finds it extremely helpful to be able to talk to someone about her family member. It’s still a difficult time, but she is able to lead her team more effectively at work and have more clarity and peace at home.

Financial Planning

John manages a team. In his weekly 1:1 with one of his direct reports, Aaron, the conversation around upcoming annual reviews and potential raises elicits a strong response from Aaron. John asks him about this and the conversation expands to Aaron’s home situation. Money is tight and Aaron confesses he hasn’t been good with money management. He’s behind on his bills and has run up all his credit cards. Aaron’s wife is also pregnant with their first child. He wants to put himself and his family in a good financial position but doesn’t know how to get himself out of debt. John reminds Aaron that EAP financial planning services are available. Aaron had forgotten this was available and is grateful the services are available at no additional cost. He is able to call the EAP support line and start speaking with a financial specialist to come up with a plan for Aaron to pay off his debts and also start saving for his child’s education.

Family Support

Alex just started a new job at an entry-level position but they have an ailing elderly mother who needs around-the-clock supervision and care. While Alex’s employer is sympathetic and has been flexible, part of Alex’s job requires onsite work. Alex learns about the EAP care assistance service from the new-hire onboarding packet and the update emails from HR. Alex decides to text the EAP number and is able to get several referrals for in-home care nurses in the area. Alex is able to be onsite when needed and rest easy knowing their mom is being well cared for.

Benefits and Employee Retention Go Hand-in-HandRetain More Employees by Tailoring Benefits to Their Needs

A History of Employee Assistance Programs

The first versions of EAPs started in the late 1930s and were known as occupational alcohol programs (OAPs). These were informal programs to help recovering alcoholics. In conjunction with the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), businesses started to see the positive effect in employees returning to work and increased productivity.

Over the next several decades, the focus of EAPs expanded as organizations recognized other issues affecting employees at work. The 1969 Hughes Act created the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) which helped treat alcoholism as a disease, provided states grants to hire and train EAP specialists and increased the number of treatment centers. Management also shifted from looking for signs and symptoms of alcoholism to any job performance issues stemming from personal problems; the modern EAPs were created.

In the 2000s, workers in the United States became more affected by events like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and workplace violence, thereby increasing the need for EAPs. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted families and businesses worldwide. Employees began using EAPs for a wide range of concerns including generalized anxiety, job loss, working from home challenges, employee burnout, isolation, general uncertainty and grief counseling. EAPs that offer medical benefits such as direct counseling and treatment (as opposed to only offering referrals) are now regulated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and are subject to COBRA regulations.

What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? (Definition) | Built In (2024)


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