Spikes in EAP usage linked to winter blahs

Employer-provided programs help employees deal with problems before they escalate

Could a particularly hard winter, combined with post-holiday blues, lead to more employees seeking support from their employee assistance program (EAP)? Yes, according to one provider based in the United States — ComPsych saw a 19 per cent spike in EAP calls this past January.

“We’ve had a bit of an anomaly in terms of a larger increase in usage and that could be because of our circumstances this year, this season,” says Jonathan Winston, regional vice-president in Canada for ComPsych in Toronto.

“We’ve had a harsher winter and an increase in storm activities... we had the ice storm and some flooding and I think people have sheltered themselves indoors and that’s sort of impacted things around mood-related issues and relationship issues.”

While Canadian EAP providers might not see such a dramatic increase — partly because of a different health-care system — they do see notable spikes during the chillier months when it comes to employees seeking assistance around issues relating to their finances, depression or relationships.

At Aspiria, utilization has almost doubled in January and February compared to December for the past three years, according to Charles Benayon, Markham, Ont.-based founder and CEO.

“As we start getting into spring, it starts to taper off for sure,” he says, adding the categories of depression and personal finance are largely responsible for the rises.

When calling in, people give all kinds of reasons, such as the weather, post-holiday blues or concerns about finances, says Benayon. Often they manage to postpone the inevitable in December because they’re too busy planning for the holidays, but that wears off with the new year.

Typically, there’s a buildup of activities and celebrations in December and then there’s a “crash” or commitment to change in January or February, causing usage spikes, says Barb Veder, vice-president of clinical services and research lead at Morneau Shepell in Ottawa.

“People are being reflective on what they want to accomplish, they’re looking at things that are undone or that they’ve put aside and that they really now want to address, either on a physical health level or emotional well-being level. And sometimes when you get together with friends and family over the holidays... if it doesn’t go as you anticipated, it brings you down and that also is a reflective time and can trigger feelings of sadness or depression.”

Hard winter weather can also limit people’s activities, says Veder — particularly those who already have restricted mobility.

“When the winter is more harsh or we’ve had more storms, people are more isolated, they’re less likely to be able to do the activities that help them through the winter, so… that of course affects our mood.”

Research has shown incidents of seasonal affective disorder or SAD are higher in climates with less sun, says Estelle Morrison, vice-president of clinical and wellness services at Ceridian Canada in Markham, Ont.

“In Canada, in the north, we definitely see higher incidents because of that very issue, so yes it is evident.”

While its usage increases are not near 19 per cent, Ceridian has seen peaks in usage rates for some of its EAP services during the winter months. But it’s difficult to interpret what’s affecting that, she says.

“If we look at addictions, if we look at individual crises and if we look at general mental health, there definitely is a pattern that goes alongside of a season. Is it a sharp, specific we-know-what-this-is-about (increase)? I would suggest not, but there is definitely an increase over January/February and there is, for the most part, a levelling off either in the spring or summer months.”

And some numbers start creeping up in December, says Morrison.

“The anticipation of holidays is a big determinant,” she says. “It’s people perhaps hearing all the commercial comments about the happy holidays and spending time with family and how wonderful this is and perhaps they’re in the midst of going through a separation, as an example, so what it does is it triggers for them the negative feelings earlier as opposed to post-holiday blues.”

Calls regarding family, including child care and elder care, also peak in January and decline in February, not picking up again until the late fall, says Morrison.

Helping people ‘see the light’

To help employees through a tough winter and stressful holidays, an EAP can be a great support. Employers want employees functioning at the optimal level, says Veder.

“If they can encourage their employees to do something that’s preventative or at an early stage, that’s ideal, that’s a good news story for the workplace because that means that people are quickly getting the help they need, that things are not spiralling and becoming immobilizing for the employees — they can come to work and feel productive, they can go home at night and be with friends and families and have a balanced life. That’s good for everybody.”

It’s about showing the person there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with practical advice, says Benayon. Employers can introduce interesting wellness measures that people get excited about, such as an Olympic-themed event with a TV set in the office lobby, he says.

“It’s better to put a program in place… and deal with those stresses before it becomes a chronic condition, before depression.

“If employers are going to invest (in an EAP), they should promote the hell out of it because there’s a definite correlation between the strategic communication one does for the EAP and subsequent utilization, unlike any other benefit.”

And it’s important to make sure employees are aware of the options, so they can reach out before the issues become too difficult to manage, says Winston.

“Sometimes, people don’t even remember all the resources that are available to them, so it’s incumbent on HR or (occupational) health or whomever to remind them that there is help out there, so don’t languish, don’t suffer — there’s confidential support available.”

EAPs provide numerous forms of support, such as in-person meetings with counsellors or online or telephone sessions. People have the option to do what works best for them, as long as it’s clinically appropriate, says Morrison.

“If they’re in a crisis state, as an example, we wouldn’t encourage online only, we would encourage them to be seen face-to-face so we can properly assess their needs. But, generally speaking, most often what they’re looking for and what they’re offered is a counselling intervention.”

While there was a time when employers didn’t encourage EAP usage because of concern around costs, that’s rare these days, according to Morrison.

“Most of them are sold on the fact that it may be initially a higher cost or greater utilization but the end result is that this is invaluable and this can prevent more disastrous things from happening somewhere down the road — greater illness, greater disability, etcetera.”

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