The phone rings. On the other end is an employee who recently lost his wife of over 60 years. He is desperate to talk with someone and ashamed to admit he needs help. However, he's taken what can be the hardest, yet most important step by reaching out to his Employee Assistance Program (EAP), where he's met with warmth, compassion, and attentive listening. His EAP created a personal connection with him and promptly referred him to a behavioral health provider who specializes in grief and loss.

Because he contacted his EAP first, he was able to meet with a provider and begin a treatment plan quicker than he had anticipated. After a month, the employee picked up the phone again, but this time instead of calling to ask for help, he expressed an abundance of gratitude to his EAP.

When employees are in a time of need, having a caring human answer the phone to offer empathy and support makes a significant difference, but far too often people don't know where to turn. This is where EAPs play a critical role-providing workforces with help when it's needed most. Of all the benefits an employer provides, EAPs are the least expensive employee benefit and if leveraged properly has the highest return on investment in terms of its impact on the productivity and mental wellbeing of their employees.

Within the fast-paced environments of modern workplaces, it's easy for people to feel overwhelmed and disconnected. Buried beneath the endless layers of productivity metrics and bottom lines are what matters most, the people. Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the link between employee wellbeing and their vital role in supporting mental health. In a behavioral health system that struggles to meet the demand and emerging technologies that remove the human element, it is a system that has become increasingly difficult to navigate. EAPs can greatly assist employers by cutting through the noise, offering time-tested programming and expertise.

What are EAPs and why are they underutilized?

EAPs are employer-sponsored programs designed to support employees facing personal or work-related challenges that impact their wellbeing, productivity or job performance. EAPs typically offer confidential counseling referrals and referrals to resources such as legal assistance and financial advisors. These resources are meant to assist members with stress management, substance abuse, family problems or workplace conflicts with the goal of helping employees address issues early on.

EAPs remove barriers to accessing care by leveraging their provider networks as a gateway to mental health services. EAPs often remain underutilized, with a market average utilization rate of 5% despite their ability to improve overall quality of life. Thirty percent of U.S. workers are unaware of how to access their company EAP. Much of this stems from misconceptions about the program and a lack of effective communication within organizations, highlighting the need for consistent and frequent messaging to employees.

It is important for employees to understand that EAPs are a benefit paid for by their employer, meaning that sessions offered within the plan are entirely free to the employee. This accessibility ensures that individuals can seek help without financial concerns. EAPs are meant to provide short-term, problem-focused care, offering targeted assistance to address immediate concerns and challenges faced by employees and their eligible dependents. EAPs offer a wide variety of comprehensive support, including access to professional care and behavioral health services. This comprehensive approach ensures that employees have access to a range of resources to address various aspects of their wellbeing, contributing to a healthier and more supported workforce.

Strategies for increasing EAP utilization

As of 2022, 57% of employees were facing moderate to severe levels of burnout. Between 2022 and 2023 there was a notable decline in employee confidence in their employer's dedication to their wellbeing, dropping from 56% in 2022 to 48% in 2023. Promotion of EAPs by company leadership can serve as a major step to regaining employee confidence in their employer's dedication to supporting their mental health. As such, having leadership advocate for both the adoption of a stand-alone EAP into their benefits plan and actively promoting utilization is key.

Employers can promote the EAP through intentional regular employee communication such as newsletters, marketing materials, and internal communications. Having a communication strategy keeps the program front of mind, educates employees, and dispels misconceptions they may have. Leaders should also consider incorporating their personal stories to normalize seeking mental health support, and they should invite their EAP Account Executive to play an active role with their organization. Account Executives will work with the employer to identify employee trends, provide mental health training, and support the organization during difficult times such as layoffs and other traumatic incidents. This approach promotes a culture where seeking care is normalized, employees know how to access care, and they feel supported and empowered by their employer to practice self-care. This proactive approach reinforces the availability of support for employees who are in crisis, assuring them that they can call their EAP anytime, day or night, and be connected with a counselor immediately.

To improve access to mental health services, employers should encourage their employees to take advantage of video, chat-based, or telephonic counseling (telehealth). This targeted approach is vital for hourly employees who may find it difficult to take time off work for in-person visits. Telehealth greatly improves access to care by enabling employees to access sessions asynchronously or during their lunch break rather than having to take time off of work. Telehealth allows members to access any provider who is licensed in their state and improves confidentiality. This all removes barriers for employees, especially for those in rural settings. As such, telehealth emerges as a vital solution, allowing people to seek support discreetly and conveniently, regardless of location.

The role of EAPs in providing efficient mental health care

EAPs play a crucial role in providing quick access to mental health care, acting as a front door for short-term issues. When a member's issues exceed the scope of the EAP, their provider can serve as a referral gateway to other mental health services. EAPs typically have closer relationships with small community network provider offices in a way that health plans do not, and this close collaboration ensures that access to care by making referrals to providers who are known to have access rather than forcing the member to search through a list on their own. The result is prompt care that is tailored to each individual's needs. Thus, EAP are able to provide personalized support and increase efficiency through concierge referrals ensuring members are matched with the right provider to address their needs. Most standalone EAPs work to ensure the provider members are matched with is also in their health plan's network. This ensures members are able to continue on with their provider through the health plan once they have used their allotted EAP sessions.

As we move further away from the heightened awareness around mental health services that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and into a time of economic uncertainty, there is a risk that organizations may look at cutting EAPs as a cost-saving measure. However, the demand for care remains significant, with mental health-related work absences up 33% last year, an increase of 300% from 2017 to 2023, underscoring the potential ROI and necessity of a robust EAP.

Foster mental wellness

The role EAPs play extends far beyond support-it's about fostering genuine and lasting connections through human-to-human interactions coupled with expertise to get people the resources as soon as possible.

No price tag can be attached to helping a fellow human improve their mental health. EAPs play a crucial role in connecting individuals with the resources they desperately need. Mental Health Awareness Month underscores the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing and advocating for EAP utilization as a vital resource that has the potential to make a transformative impact on your entire workforce.

Posted In:  Behavioral Health EAP

About Jeremy Battershell

Jeremy earned a Bachelor's degree in Health Science Studies, a Master's degree in Health Administration, and has more than 14 years of experience in healthcare operations and management. Prior to joining First Choice Health, he served as the Director of Business Development at BPA Health where he led program development, revenue growth, and account management. In addition to being a former Army Medical Operations Officer, Jeremy has served in different practice management roles in internal medicine and orthopedics. Outside of work Jeremy enjoys playing board games, mountain biking, and music.