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Updated: April 24, 2024

Understanding EAPs and why employers offer employee assistance programs

Published By:

Jon Davis

This image appears in OnPay's article on how EAPs help employees and why employers offer them.

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Offering an employee assistance program can positively impact the well-being of new hires, as well as staffers with long tenures. Also known as an EAP, many employers offer them so that their team members have an outlet for coping with personal or work-related issues. In fact, in 2022 the US Department of Labor reported that in companies with 500 or more employees, 84% of private workers had access through their employer to an employee assistance program.

Fast facts about employee assistance programs (EAPs)

  • EAPs can assist employees with personal issues that affect work, such as mental health challenges
  • The programs use third-party vendors to protect employee privacy and ensure confidentiality
  • Most offer counseling, referrals, and resources for mental health, legal, or financial guidance
  • Participation is voluntary, but supervisors may suggest that employees consider utilizing EAPs if they exhibit performance or behavioral issues

Though many employees believe that EAPs are only available for counseling, the truth is that the benefits can often be much broader. Some offer confidential legal and financial advice, and other resources that can be useful when life throws unexpected curveballs.

 

But how does an employer offer EAP benefits, and what are the steps to get started? In this business owner’s guide, we explain how these programs work, the benefits for both employers and employees, and how they can positively impact your organization’s culture.

Understanding employee assistance programs (EAPs)

In the simplest terms, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a confidential service sponsored by employers to provide eligible employees with access to expert and vetted resources to manage personal and job-related matters. The US Office of Personnel Management shares a similar definition.

 

Now that we have a broader understanding of what an EAP is, let’s discuss why some employers adopt them.

What are the purposes of employee benefit programs?

To learn more, we spoke with Kelly Beckner, Vice President of Corporate Human Resources & Administration at MBO Partners, an HR professional with over 30 years in the business.

 

“A well-designed benefits program is built with an understanding of your employee base and is essential for both talent attraction and retention. A meaningful benefits program connects to your employees, offers value (financial or otherwise), and shows the employees that you care about their well-being.”

 

The primary goal of an EAP is to proactively address personal challenges and provide solutions before they begin affecting an employee’s job performance or overall well-being at work.

 

In many cases, EAPs are offered on the employer’s dime, which means that employees can participate without having to make an investment. One positive takeaway is that programs are typically available company-wide, regardless of position or income level.

“A well-designed benefits program is built with an understanding of your employee base and is essential for both talent attraction and retention. A meaningful benefits program connects to your employees, offers value (financial or otherwise), and shows the employees that you care about their well-being.”


— Kelly Beckner, Vice President of Corporate Human Resources & Administration at MBO Partners

Confidential consultation

EAPs are built with confidentiality in mind, meaning that employees can take advantage of the services offered with the assurance that personal information will stay private, and not be shared with coworkers.

 

For example, most companies offer access to secure, online portals that are accessible day or night, seven days a week. This gives employees the freedom to explore available resources or set up appointments with professionals participating in the EAP. The sessions are based on what they need help with, on their own schedule, and in private.

 

Let’s talk about how employees benefit from these programs.

Benefits of an EAP for employees

To learn more about what employers and employees can expect from EAP benefits, we asked Beckner to share her thoughts once more.

 

What does an employee assistance program typically provide for employees?

“Typically, an employee assistance program (EAP) offers employees and their immediate family members access to legal, financial, and mental health resources that employees can access when needed,” she explains. “EAPs give employees access to resources they may need to get information and deal with issues or concerns at reduced or no cost.”

 

In essence, an EAP not only helps employees navigate any personal challenges that bubble up, but also equips them with the tools they need to thrive, both personally and professionally.

“Typically, an employee assistance program (EAP) offers employees and their immediate family members access to legal, financial, and mental health resources that employees can access when needed. EAPs give employees access to resources they may need to get information and deal with issues or concerns at reduced or no cost.”


— Kelly Beckner, Vice President of Corporate Human Resources & Administration at MBO Partners

Investing in an EAP can have positive ripple effects across an organization. By proactively helping team members, issues are caught early on and employees stay happy and healthy, leading to increased productivity and an overall positive effect on the business’s bottom line.

 

“Often, the problems that prompt employees to need or use an EAP weigh heavily on employees and impact their engagement and productivity. Providing resources to address personal issues helps both the employee and the company,” says Beckner.

 

Though not an exhaustive list, below is more information on what most programs typically include.

 

Discreet counseling

In most cases, employees can schedule time with professional counselors when they are dealing with stress or mental health issues. Because services are confidential, workers are able to take advantage of different types of therapy without having to wonder if the information will end up being shared in the workplace.

 

Confidentiality is typically one of the main pillars of a program: only the EAP provider and the employee using the available services should be aware that the employee is participating.

 

Legal guidance

Some EAP programs offer employees access to attorneys for legal help. Though it varies depending on the employer, some EAPs provide workers access to lawyers who can consult on matters such as small claims court, real estate matters, or trusts and living wills.

 

Handling work-related challenges head on

EAPs aren’t limited to personal matters and can sometimes be a resource for mitigating challenges that crop up at work. For example, they can be used to resolve conflicts between colleagues, or provide coping techniques to manage job-related stressors.

 

Attention to finances

Though it depends on the EAP, some programs provide opportunities to speak with financial advisors. If an employee needs guidance on tasks such as budget planning or debt management strategies, assistance is available.

 

The takeaway is that while most EAPs do offer a mental health component, nowadays the programs can be much more well-rounded to assist workers with a variety of things. We found out more from Rhona Fromm, the Chief of Human Resources at AmerCareRoyal, who shares some details on what their EAP entails.

 

“EAPs provide our employees with mental health and counseling services for personal or work-related issues,” she explains. “But they also provide broader referral counseling services for financial wellness and total life issues, inclusive of legal, childcare, and eldercare.”

 

When an organization adopts an EAP, there are also positives for employers.

“EAPs provide our employees with mental health and counseling services for personal or work-related issues. But they also provide broader referral counseling services for financial wellness and total life issues, inclusive of legal, childcare, and eldercare.”


— Rhona Fromm, Chief of Human Resources at AmerCareRoyal

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Benefits of an EAP for employers

By including an EAP as part of a benefits package, it sends a message that the company has a vested interest in the wellness of its employees. It can also generate positive word of mouth and reap benefits in the long run. For example, employees who use the EAP are more likely to stay, and human resource representatives can use the program as part of recruiting efforts.

 

We asked Fromm to expand on this topic, and she says that an EAP can make the difference when it comes to recruiting outreach and encouraging employees to stay for the long term.

 

“Part of a total rewards package, we use employee benefits programs to attract and retain talent to our company, and these programs have a tangible impact on employee engagement and productivity levels,” she says. “The reality is that base compensation alone is not the sole driver for talent acquisition and retention. Employee benefits offerings are meaningful to our team members and our company to remain relevant and competitive.”

 

In addition, resources that are available through an EAP should lead to:

  • Happier employees
  • More productive personnel
  • Reduced absenteeism

 

All this said, there can be some less-than-positive effects that an EAP can bring. To bring light to this, Kelly Beckner of MBO Partners shares her first-hand experience.

 

What are some potential drawbacks of EAPs?

  • Most offer a limited number of “sessions” at no cost to the employee, which means employees may not be willing to invest in the assistance after that, and may not resolve the issue or concern
  • EAPs can often be included as part of a life insurance offering, or as an add-on to another benefit program, which can become buried or overlooked when benefits programs are promoted

 

Employees taking advantage of services offered through EAPs have increased in recent years, per data published in 2022 by the American Journal of Health Promotion and shared by the National Library of Medicine.

  • Historically, five out of 100 employees with access to an EAP used one
  • That figure rose to 7.6 out of 100 in 2019, and up to 9.7 out of 100 in 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic

 

That said, there is still room for improvement. According to the nonprofit Mental Health America, less than five percent of workers take advantage of their EAP. To get another view, we asked Rhona Fromm for her take on a potential con to offering a program. “Low utilization of EAP due to lack of knowledge that the offering exists is what we see most often,” she explains. “So, it can be wise to communicate how they work and what they entail.”

 

The key point is that for employees to take advantage of EAP services, it is important that they know the value they provide.

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Establishing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

For employers interested in getting started, here are some steps.

 

Gather employee feedback

First things first. You’ll want to identify which specific services will be the most beneficial for your staff. How do you go about getting this data? One idea is to ask your employees, who may be willing to share what they are most interested in and, more importantly, what they need most. You can survey your employees confidentially, tell them that you are thinking of setting up an EAP, and ask them what they would like to see included.

 

Which EAP provider should you choose?

Search the web, and you’ll find that there are many providers at your fingertips, each with their own unique plans and offerings. It can be a good idea to make a list and start comparing what each EAP plan provides, to see which one matches up with the services and benefits employees want most.

 

Crunch the numbers

Each plan will have its own limitations on the number of covered employees, number of services offered, and how often employees can access the service. By comparing these figures, you can calculate a rough annual organizational cost.

 

Integration options

Once you have chosen a plan, work with your EAP provider to seamlessly integrate this service into your existing benefits package.

 

Communication is key

Last, but certainly not least, is making sure that all of your employees understand that the EAP is available and how they may take advantage of it. It can be a good idea to send an initial company-wide newsletter to let everyone know that you’re setting up an EAP. Occasionally send reminders — try once per quarter — to keep everyone in the loop and aware that the EAP is available. This should help to grow employee participation.

Employers and employees can benefit from EAPs

With so many employees looking for that holy grail of work-life balance, incorporating an EAP program can make a difference. But it is not just employees who reap the rewards. On one hand, an EAP gives team members access to professional resources, either for personal or work-related issues. For employers, they can have a positive effect on the workplace, reduce absenteeism, improve productivity, help employees focus on mental health, and make the work environment better for all team members.

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Jon Davis is the Sr. Content Marketing Manager at OnPay. He has over 15 years of experience writing for small and growing businesses. Jon lives and works in Atlanta.