Do EAPs still make sense?

With mental health issues on the rise, supportive programs keep employees at work

There has been much discussion over the years about employee assistance programs (EAPs), most of it questioning their effectiveness in resolving employees’ workplace and personal problems and increasing their productivity.

Are EAPs merely in place as a nice-to-have benefit to show an employer is supportive regarding  employees’ mental health issues — having outgrown their value to organizations to address employee health? Or are they genuinely improving employees’ work performances and impacting an employer’s bottom line?  

How EAPs help

EAPs provide confidential assistance with issues that interfere with a worker’s ability to function well on the job, through prevention, identification, assessment, treatment, referral, and followup services — even if the problems are not a result of workplace issues.

The range of areas typically addressed by EAPs include job stress, personal relationship issues, parenting, childcare and eldercare struggles, addictions, harassment, separation and divorce,  and financial and legal assistance.

EAPs also offer wellness promotion for weight control, nutrition, smoking cessation and exercise, along with educational wellness campaigns, interventions for work teams, and problem-specific coaching for individual managers.

EAPs can also help with crisis management support, to help companies prepare for, and respond to, traumatic workplace incidents, such as accidents, violence, disasters and death.

If EAPs were unavailable, how much time off would employees take from work, using either their sick days or unpaid leaves of absence? Moreover, how much more time would HR or managers need to spend with employees to find the right resource to assist them with their mental health issues? 

EAPs offer “psychological first-aid” and, if necessary, often refer employees to other professionals or agencies that can offer deeper or extended care in particular areas, such as longer-term mental health treatment or substance abuse specialty support. When at-risk employees know what to expect from the process and receive followup from their EAP, they are motivated to continue treatment.

Opportunities exist for EAPs to collaborate more with primary care doctors, disease management programs, and disability case managers to assist with employees’ mental health-related issues, and keep employees working or returning to work sooner, rather than not at all.

EAP usage

One reason the usage of EAPs is not higher (the industry average is 10 per cent of the employee population) is the employee’s perception that somehow, in some way, their EAP is not confidential and their manager or HR department will become aware of their mental health issues, work pressures or difficulties with their supervisor. 

In addition, employees with mental health issues do not always access care as they would for a physical health condition, often due to fears of social stigma or an inability to afford treatment and counselling.

Other reasons are a lack of awareness by employees that they even have an EAP benefit at their workplace, or what the EAP offers in areas such as debt management, bullying at work, childcare or living with an elderly parent at home.

It is up to the employer to champion the cause, raise the awareness of this benefit, and encourage its confidential use by employees. Otherwise, the purchase of an EAP by the employer becomes disingenuous, or just another offering to entice new hires — not an investment in human capital to maintain or increase productivity.

When employers shift their perspective of an EAP just as a poster in a lunchroom with a 1-800 number, to recognizing its true value and encouraging full-service utilization, the long-term ROI rewards of higher productivity can mitigate the much higher cost of absenteeism, presenteeism, disability claims and prescription drug claims.

Where’s the ROI?

Empirical studies have demonstrated that EAPs produce positive returns for organizations in quantifiable direct cost savings from reduced medical, disability and workers’ compensation claims, and even more savings from reduced indirect business cost losses related to poor work performance.

Research shows that employees who use EAPs experience positive changes in their work performance. In fact, a 2004 study in the Journal of Employee Assistance Research Report, looking at over 60,000 cases, found employee absenteeism was reduced from an average of 2.37 days of unscheduled absences or late days in the 30-day period before using the EAP, to 0.91 days after completing use of the EAP.

The typical return on investment (ROI) of an EAP is $3 or more, for every $1 dollar invested, according to the Employee Assistance Trade Association.

Employers need to change their paradigm of “Everyone here must be giving their best performance every day because no one is really using this service, so it must be of little value” to “Our staff is fully using our EAP services when they need it, instead of frequently calling in sick, and the positive results speak for themselves.”

Charles Benayon is founder and CEO of Aspiria in Markham, Ont., focused on EAP and student assistance programs (SAPs). For more information, visit

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