Do EAPs really make a difference?

Study shows return on investment of mental health support
By Patricia Alderson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/20/2015

An employee assistance program (EAP) is often the first step an individual takes towards regaining and maintaining good mental health — but little evidence has been available to illustrate the broader impact of these programs. A recent Canadian study paints a clear picture of the financial benefits for organizations that provide an EAP. 


EAPs provide employees with counselling and referral services to help them cope with mental wellness issues — a major cause of long-term disability claim costs along with short-term disability, conflict at work and absences. 


Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or race. Living with mental illness presents a significant burden.

Interestingly, a mere 50 per cent of Canadians are open with friends or co-workers about a family member with a mental illness, in comparison to the 72 per cent who openly discuss a diagnosis of cancer, according to a 2008 report from the Canadian Medical Association.


It’s hard to avoid the statistics, but here they are: 


• An average of $51 billion is lost each year to the Canadian economy due to the impact of mental illness, according to a 2010 report from the Canadian Mental Health Association. 


• One in four Canadian workers experience chronic work stress, according to Statistics Canada.


• Seventy per cent of disability claim costs relate to mental health concerns, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.


• Mental health problems will be the number two cause of disability by 2020, according to the World Health Organization.


“If you own or manage a company and think mental health is not your business, then it’s time to think again,” says Allan Stordy, president and CEO of Arete Human Resources. 


It’s also an accepted fact that the longer someone is off work, the less likely she is to return, he says, which is why Arete commissioned an independent study to provide solid numbers and evidence on why providing employees with an EAP is well worth it.


“We’ve long known that counselling and support services offered through employee assistance programs improve the lives of those struggling under the weight of difficult mental health issues,” says Stordy. “Now we can link these positive results to very real cost savings.”


The study

The research study, Investigating the Global Value of a Canadian Employee Assistance Program, tracked volunteer Canadian employees before they accessed Arete’s EAP services, and then three months after.


Significant mental health improvements were seen in individuals accessing support through an EAP, as evidenced by reductions in depression, anxiety and stress levels three months after the counselling session. After EAP use, public health-care use relating to specialist visits was reduced.


Further, the study found that reduced work productivity and significant employer costs at the intake stage highlighted the need for EAP services. 


At intake, 66 per cent of participants had performance issues, with an estimated average loss of $1,063 in the previous four weeks for employers. This translates into an average annual loss of almost $13,000 per participant, associated with absenteeism and presenteeism.


Prior to entering the EAP program, 66 per cent of all study participants reported having moderate, severe or extremely severe problems with stress, anxiety or depression. Three months after accessing the counselling program, less than 32 per cent fell into these same categories.


“We are not suggesting that EAPs are a magic wand, capable of making all mental health issues disappear,” says Stordy. “We have proven, however, that they are an effective gateway towards an improved state of health, not only for individuals, but for the organizations they work for and our health system. The evidence provided by this study, and future research, is aimed at breaking through any reluctance on accepting the benefit they provide to Canadians and our economy.”


Patricia Alderson is director of corporate and small business services at Arete Human Resources in Calgary. She can be reached at palderson@aretehr.com.

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