Choosing the right EAP

Marketplace has wide range of vendors offering equally wide variety of services

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) started out as industrial alcoholism programs in the 1940s. Now, they are confidential, short-term counselling services for employees with personal problems that affect their ability to cope with daily living and ultimately impact their work performance.

Many EAP providers are starting to focus on employee wellness, offering a broad range of health- and lifestyle-related products and services in an attempt to further differentiate the offering.

Most employers want to offer a competitive program with services that match business objectives, cost models and needs. But how does an employer sift through the myriad plan designs and vendor options to select the right EAP?

The EAP marketplace has become more complex with an increasing number of vendors offering a broad range of services.

Selecting a vendor can be a tough decision, but the importance of EAPs will only increase as organizations deal with attraction and retention issues, increased incidence of mental health issues affecting employee attendance and work productivity, and the realization the labour market is shrinking.

Organizations need to keep employees healthy and productive and an EAP can play an important role in this process.

What factors should an employer consider in the selection of an EAP and vendor? Each vendor and each program has a different mix of offerings that need to be weighed.

Program design: Although many products are pre-packaged, depending on the size and specific needs of the employer, there may be opportunities to customize the plan design. For example, if an organization has a specific issue with drug or alcohol abuse, it may wish to enhance the level of service offered in this area.

Many EAP vendors are offering ancillary services either as a part of the core EAP offering or as an enhancement. These might include health- and wellness-related services or specialized services in the area of parenting, support for seniors or anger-management programs.

An organization should look at the cost, as well as potential benefits, of such extras in terms of a broader corporate wellness strategy when deciding which ones to add to the program.

Price: Price is important not only at the onset of a program, but ongoing as well. Employers should understand how the price will change over time based on actual plan usage. Many EAPs are priced based on an expected usage rate, with the ongoing price adjusted based on actual usage. Some organizations price services on a straight fee-for-service basis.

It is important to understand the differences in price and select the one that makes sense for the organization. Is price stability more important than having the cost reflect actual usage, which may vary considerably from year to year?

Access to service: There are differences in the intake process when an employee initiates a call to the EAP provider. These differences become more apparent when an individual requires or requests face-to-face counselling.

The availability of resources, the qualifications of counsellors and the timeliness of appointments may vary. This is very important for organizations with employees in remote locations.

The organization should ensure the EAP provider has counsellors available where all employees live or work so everyone has access to face-to-face counselling.

Confidentiality: Employees must be confident their conversations will be held in the strictest confidence — it must remain a “safe place.” Check out the vendor’s policies and procedures with respect to the protection of confidential client information and do some research as to whether there have been any problems in the past.

Client reporting: Reporting on plan usage must respect the confidentiality of those accessing the service. However, usage reports must also be sufficiently detailed for an organization to assess the effectiveness of a program.

The range of available reporting is quite broad but at a minimum should capture program activity, trend reporting, benchmarking and client satisfaction survey results.

Some organizations will assist in the development of an annual return on investment report, which can be helpful in making the business case for further investments in the program or related activities. Reports can generally be customized to meet the specific needs of the organization.

Marketing and promotion:For an organization to maximize the return on its investment in an EAP, the program must be well understood not only by the employee and her family members, but HR and line managers who may play a key role in directing employees to the service.

The majority of EAP providers offer assistance in this area but the level of support and commitment varies. Employers should promote the program at the outset, as well as throughout its lifespan. Regular e-mails, newsletters, timely updates, employee lunch-and-learn sessions, posters and brochures should all be available.

Client references: All EAPs and vendors look pretty impressive. Even after focusing on these areas of potential differentiation, it may be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Organizations should seek out client references, and not just those provided by the EAP provider, to assess the program delivery.

If an advisor is involved or if the program is purchased directly through an insurer or other third party, it should be relatively easy to put together an expanded list of client references beyond what is provided by the EAP provider. Organizations with special employee characteristics, such as remote locations, should look for client references that can speak to similar experiences.

Brian Lindenberg is a leader of the health and benefits professional group at Mercer Canada in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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