Do EAPs Work or Just Make Employers Feel Good?

Little Evidence Exists That Employees Obtain Value Through an EAP

It's difficult to prove whether employee assistance programs (EAPs) are effective for employers and employees.
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Does an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) actually provide value for employers and employees? Or, is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) a way for employers to feel good about doing something positive for employees—that may or may not provide a value-add to employee wellness and work productivity?

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are a part of a comprehensive benefits package that employers may provide for their employees. In theory, they provide your employees with access to help in solving life's troubling problems.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are frequently, although not always, offered in conjunction with the employer’s health insurance plan. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) play a role in an employer’s overall emphasis on employee wellness in the workplace.

What Do Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) Do in the Workplace?

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) provide needs assessment, help, counseling, and referrals for employees and their family members when they are faced with mental health or emotional issues. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are available to assist the employee when he or she needs help dealing with life events, workplace issues, and other personal problems and challenges.

EAPs most frequently assist employees to deal with issues in these areas, according to the Department of Labor:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug abuse
  • Marital difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Emotional problems
  • Legal problems

Short-term counseling and support may be all that an employee needs. Generally, for longer-term counseling and support, a referral to another agency or provider is offered by the EAP.

Why Do an Increasing Number of Employers Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)?

From an employer’s standpoint, an EAP helps the employee deal with issues that might otherwise adversely impact the employee’s health and wellness, or work performance. “According to Watson Wyatt, factors such as mental health conditions, sleep problems, stigma, and substance use and abuse affect business performance by reducing productivity and increasing both planned and unplanned absences.

(Source: The Employee Assistance Research Foundation, an organization that was founded in 2007 to understand the EAP field and the current state of the art and to examine the effectiveness of EAP services overall for employees and employers.)

An EAP gives employers a referral option when managers and Human Resources staff are helping an employee deal with life and work issues that are beyond the training and scope of these workplace helpers.

Managers and Human Resources staff are generally not trained to provide therapy or counseling to employees and an EAP gives them a way to help an employee without turning away an employee in need.

"National Compensation Survey data show that public sector workers have greater access to wellness programs and employee assistance programs than do private sector workers. The difference in access can be attributed to a number of factors, including occupational composition and the different job functions of public and private sector workers. For example, the ratio of public sector workers in education and public safety jobs is relatively high compared with private sector workers."

In 2008, data show that 78% of public sector employees and 46% of private sector employees had access to EAPs, a notable increase from the percentage of employees covered by EAPs in 1999 when the figures were 43% and 21% respectively.

"In the US, over 97% of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs. 80% of companies with 1,001 - 5,000 employees have EAPs. 75% of companies with 251 - 1,000 employees have EAPs. A 2008 National Study of Employers following ten years trends related to U.S. workplace policies and benefits shows that the EAP industry continues to grow, with 65% of employers providing EAPs in 2008, up from 56% in 1998," according to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). (This is the most recent trustworthy data available.)

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) give employers an option that might assist employees to overcome difficulties that may be impacting their work performance, mental health, and general wellness.

Are Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) Effective?

Research exists that demonstrates that EAPs are effective, although, the evidence is controversial. HR professionals experience both positive and negative word-of-mouth feedback from employees who have accessed their organizations’ EAP. The most controversial finding is that the EAP is not considered to be a confidential service. This is especially true depending upon the service providers, of the EAPs that are provided by employers in the public sector.

These EAPs may be departments within the larger organizations and employees regard them with often warranted suspicion and skepticism. Employees are suspicious that anything they tell a counselor in an in-house EAP will go directly to the ear of related HR staff. They fear that the information will then affect their career.

Evidence of EAP Effectiveness

The Employee Assistance Research Foundation, referenced above, says that the field of employee assistance has not produced enough research to justify its prolific and expanding use by employers both in the United States and abroad.

”Although some studies suggest EAPs are generally effective, the EAP evidence base leaves many questions unanswered. In part this is due to common methodological limitations; for example, the literature is dominated by single case studies and by program evaluations that do not always meet rigorous scientific standards. Although there has been an impressive accumulation of program evaluations undertaken by employers (and their EA providers or consultants), most of these evaluations have been considered proprietary and not widely disseminated or published in scholarly journals. In addition, there is a need for additional research focused on contemporary EA service delivery models since this has changed dramatically over the years, on specifically examining the ‘active ingredients’ in EAP effectiveness, and on measuring outcomes of most relevance to employers and workers.”

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) Conclusion

To summarize, employers have increasingly offered Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), often through their health care providers. Little evidence exists that demonstrates that EAPs are effective in serving the goal of employers to maintain productivity and healthy, well employees.

However, EAPs do give the employer an option when dealing with troubled staff members whom they are ill-equipped, and not in the business, to serve.

Consequently, the popularity of EAPs will continue to rise and the hope is that unbiased research going forward demonstrates that EAPs do, in fact, serve the best interests of employers and employees. Not just a panacea for the masses, HR professionals would like to know that EAPs actually work—or not.

If you're a member, you can find further guidance about providing an EAP and provider comparisons at the Society for HR Management's "When Choosing an EAP, Consider Credentials, Responsiveness, Range of Services."