It is no secret that mental health needs have emerged in the modern workforce. We are, as they say, in an epidemic due to the growing numbers of mental health concerns faced by employees over the past few years, brought on abruptly by a global pandemic. With these growing concerns, organizations are dealing with the burden of an increasingly unhappy, and unhealthy, workforce.
While some organizations are further along than others in their mental health strategy, it’s nearly ubiquitous that organizations offer an EAP to their staff as a primary resource for all things health and wellbeing, including mental health. EAPs are attractive to employers and HR because they offer a one-stop shop resource that encompasses a wider range of services such as financial counseling, substance abuse counseling, teletherapy and workplace wellness resources. Being that EAPs seemingly cover the entire wellness spectrum, from financial and physical health to mental and behavioral health, many employers are, understandably, content that these resources fully satisfy their mental health strategy. However, as we examine further, there are several shortcomings to EAPs that HR and organizations should consider when it comes to the needs of the modern workforce.
The main challenges with an EAP and mental health include:
Why is it that when we think of mental health we immediately jump to mental illness? If you ask someone what comes to mind when you say mental health, you’ll often hear ‘depression’, ‘burnout’, or ‘stress’. Yet, when we ask the same of physical health, images conjured up are of someone exercising or thriving. In the workplace, EAP resources are set up to help people when they’re in distress, which is a reactive, and more expensive, state for employers. Promoting company mental health resources in such a way perpetuates stigma, not factoring in the broader, more proactive set of tools and skills that can be developed to improve mental wellbeing.
Even further, few people have the self-awareness that they are at risk of distress and need care. It’s not easy to identify ourselves in that 1-in-5 ‘illness’ camp. Most identify with the 4-in-5 (we really mean 5-in-5) that aren’t ill but just deal with day-to-day adversity.
EAPs can be difficult to access for employees due to a variety of factors. First, the awareness of EAPs is, in general, lacking. Often buried in the company intranet, EAPs are not set up as a prominent resource hub for most organizations. Part of this is because of the economic model, which is incentive-based on engagement. Simply put, the more employees use an EAP, the more expensive it is to the employer. Depending on the employer, this may impact their desire to actively promote the EAP. On average, EAPs utilization sits somewhere between 5-10% of employees.
The lack of information provided upfront about their EAPs makes it difficult for employees to understand what services are available and how to access them.
When it comes to accessibility, getting in touch with counselors is a problem that’s been exacerbated by growing needs in mental health. There are not physically enough counselors to satisfy the demand, which extends wait times to get connected, not to mention the challenges of being connected to the appropriate resources in the first place. It’s not uncommon that employees reach out, get redirected, and weeks go by without getting the acute care they need.
Mental Health services provided by EAPs are often reactive, sitting in counseling or referrals, which don’t offer employees ongoing ways to self-manage their mental health. EAP resources that are deemed preventative are purely content-based, more introductory than comprehensive, and are delivered in a library-like, choose-your-own-adventure format with very little personalization. It’s also common that EAP resources lack a digital experience that employees are used to in any other media they consume, instead leaning into more traditional workshop or in-person formats, further limiting its relevance.
EAPs often lack a mechanism for follow-up to ensure that employees are continuing to receive proper treatment and support. Not only is it challenging to get connected upfront, but the follow-through experience is incoherent, lacking digital resources that show progression or get them connected with acute care when needed.
EAPs are a great starting point to a mental health strategy, helping with short-term interventions that immediately help address symptoms and issues for employees in distress. However, these programs alone are not enough to ensure that employees are getting the support they need to lead healthy, productive lives.
Creating a comprehensive mental health strategy that goes beyond an Employee Assistance Program is essential to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees. By providing education, resources that upskill and boost mental wellbeing, and creating a supportive workplace culture, employers can ensure that their employees are receiving the care and support they need to stay healthy and productive.