Employee assistance plan sponsors need not feel overwhelmed by the large and growing number of services being offered in an expanding EAP market. Instead, their focus should be on developing an EAP with clear objectives based on corporate needs.
With firmly established objectives, the implementation process is streamlined and it becomes easier to track tangible results.
Know what you want
Before implementing an EAP, plan sponsors must first clearly define the goals for the program. The EAP should fit the needs and expectations of the workforce while assisting the organization in meeting corporate financial targets.
Critical success factors vary from one organization to the next. However, the need for trusted, confidential services should be the cornerstone of any EAP. Other objectives often include absence management and employee retention.
Successful plan sponsors often credit program achievement to the formation of a joint EAP selection committee. Management, employees and unions collectively manage, promote and evaluate the program. Employee surveys and focus groups are used to determine needs.
In building and monitoring the program together, the plan sponsor secures employee buy-in and generates a network of program advocates.
Know yourself when choosing a provider
Plan sponsors must consider the characteristics that make their organization unique. A large ethnic population may have cultural and linguistic needs. The corporate environment may require specialized services due to 24-hour shift work or extensive travel requirements. The selection of a provider that can address these needs ensures better employee service. To facilitate this process, potential EAP candidates should be asked to provide references from similar clients.
Another important internal step is to conduct an inventory of current services and available resources.
One company inadvertently found itself with two EAPs after purchasing a long-term disability plan that included an EAP referral service. While one program was more comprehensive than the other, the fact is the company was left financing two programs.
Compare prices and negotiate
Plan sponsors looking for value should not concentrate on the lowest price. A higher fee may include value-added services that save money and internal resources, such as communication support and detailed reporting.
Training and education of counsellors and intake personnel is very important. Look for accredited counsellors with a minimum of a Master’s level of education.
When considering quotes from EAP providers, plan sponsors must ask questions to understand the services included in the rates. Do the rates include counselling sessions? Does the program only provide referrals? How many hours of counselling are included per case? How is administrative time tracked? How is utilization determined?
Rates and utilization: The value question
Currently, many EAP providers offer bundled rates that include a wide range of services — such as nurse hotlines, elder care, child care, and legal and financial advice. These services are popular with employees, but also can significantly drive up utilization and cost. Moreover, the additional services may not be part of the corporate EAP vision.
Often plan sponsors feel obliged to accept a bundled EAP package. An organization that does not require these additional services should look to negotiate a customized package at a reduced rate. Unfortunately, some companies only discover these hidden cost drivers after program implementation and by then it may be too late.
One such company in the auto industry selected a full service EAP. After one year, utilization, and ultimately cost, was much higher than anticipated and the program objective of lower absenteeism was not being realized.
An analysis of utilization patterns showed that the main cost drivers were legal and financial assistance. Still, the employer felt they had no choice but to continue to absorb these costs. Removing these programs would cause morale and productivity to suffer — not to mention the time and expense involved in communicating what would be an unpopular decision.
While overuse of services outside corporate objectives is a concern, underutilization of key services is not an acceptable alternative. Organizations that make full use of their EAP obtain the greatest value from a program. Continual promotion of a well-designed program helps to reduce and prevent absenteeism.
EAP services can provide the resources to create a supportive attendance management program. In using EAP support, valuable internal HR resources are then freed up to focus on other priority projects.
Reports and performance standards
Once an EAP provider is chosen, the contract must be finalized. Reporting requirements and performance standards are necessary to ensure ongoing program value. It is advisable to think twice about a provider that cannot offer these important contractual components.
Reporting requirements should include the number of referrals, nature of counselling services and utilization trends. This data must be analysed against the original program objectives. For example, if an EAP was designed to reduce absenteeism, EAP data must be compared to internal absence statistics.
Moderate to high utilization, coupled with stable or reduced absenteeism, signals that the program is having a positive effect.
However, low utilization and high absenteeism may indicate a need for further program promotion, enhanced co-ordination of EAP and attendance policies, or employee dissatisfaction with the EAP provider or program design.
Performance standards should include statements about adhering to confidentiality, the expected use of satisfaction surveys and mandatory service requirements. A documented process is needed to track and review performance standards and the consequences of underperformance must be defined. In terms of program deliverables, recognized industry practices include:
•guaranteed accessibility 24 hours a day, seven days a week;
•intake assessments that are sensitive to requests of EAP patients (for example, language, religion, sex and location of counsellor);
•patients should be offered an appointment with a counsellor within a maximum wait time of two business days; and
•a rate of abandonment on incoming calls of less than three per cent.
Every five to 10 years, employers should survey the marketplace. EAP providers are continually developing innovative programs and expanding service capabilities. But more importantly, the organization’s needs may have changed.
Mergers, expansion and changes in employee demographics may signal that an organization has outgrown its current EAP provider or program design and it is time for a change.
With rising benefit costs, today’s plan sponsors are under more pressure than ever to judiciously expend corporate resources. A well-designed EAP can decrease the number of mental health claims, reduce the need for additional company-paid psychological appointments and improve productivity and morale. However, a successful EAP requires more than the good intentions of a well-meaning employer. Value can only be realized from an EAP through corporate commitment to the development of a sound program with a plan for ongoing management.
Pat Monteath is a board member of the EAP Association of Toronto. She is a senior consultant with Aon’s Health Strategies Practice in Toronto where she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.