The EFAP evolution

Employee and family assistance programs are adapting to better meet employee needs

The workplace is changing, shaped by various trends that include shifting demographics, the increasing use of technology and a global sharing economy that reaches across borders for resources. The impact on employees is both positive and negative: They may enjoy greater flexibility in working arrangements and better tools to enhance capabilities, but also experience higher stress. 

Employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) are evolving as a result of these workplace changes, as well as a new perspective on their purpose. Employers have become more aware of the cost of both absenteeism and presenteeism and have begun to view EFAPs as a preventative measure that can help lessen their impact. Every dollar invested in an EFAP provides more than eight times the return on investment (ROI) in terms of both improved productivity at work and reduced rates of employee absence, according to the 2014 Morneau Shepell study Return on Investment for Employee and Family Assistance Programs.

Identifying appropriate support services
An effective EFAP — one that provides the greatest benefit to employees and maximum ROI — is tailored to a particular organization and evolves over time. While certain core elements of the EFAP may be standard, such as professional counselling and family support, other services can be much broader. Organizations can work collaboratively with their EFAP to ascertain the specific needs of their workforce. 

EFAP support services have expanded to address the “total health” of employees and their families. It is not unusual to see support for issues related to family, finances and career; peri- and post-critical incident mental health support; physical health and fitness, nutrition support, and naturopathic advice; effective work habit development; people leader challenges; and cultural and emotional difficulties faced by expatriates and families on assignment. 

As EFAPs evolve to meet changing times, new services are also being offered. 

“EFAP providers need to be ahead of the curve in ensuring they have the required expertise available to provide new services,” says Rita Fridella, executive vice-president and general manager of employee support solutions at Morneau Shepell. 

“Some of these services may be geared to the specific needs of a certain segment of the workforce, such as trauma support for first responders and their families. Others are reflective of a growing awareness of the prevalence of certain conditions, such as depression, and how they can impact attendance, productivity and retention.”

Effective delivery
While having appropriate assistance available is essential, other key factors must be considered to realize the full benefit of an EFAP. 

“Merely offering an EFAP doesn’t mean that employees will use it. There will be little uptake if they are unaware of the services offered, aren’t assured of confidentiality, have difficulty or discomfort in accessing support, and/or aren’t confident that the support offered will help,” says Fridella. 

The following points are useful for determining whether an EFAP provider will be able to meet workforce needs successfully:

  Communication: Informing employees about the EFAP and what it can do for them requires frequent communication, likely using multiple platforms. A provider should have suggestions for an effective, ongoing communication strategy, as well as precedents that might be adapted for the organization’s use. Beyond the services covered, essential messages are that there is no stigma attached to seeking help, that privacy and confidentiality are assured, and that support can be easily accessed through a variety of channels (such as telephone, online and mobile apps). 

  Focus on workplace issues: Effective EFAP providers have a special understanding of workplace issues and their nuances. These issues can have a significant impact on productivity and must be addressed within the workplace context to be properly resolved. 

“Note that ‘workplace’ has a broad meaning these days,” says Fridella. “That there are so many more work-from-home employees, as well freelancers and global workforce resources, means that new issues have arisen that make familiarity with and focus on this particular area even more important.”

  Frontline capabilities: EFAPs need to be able to provide quick and easy access to whatever support is needed. The intake process must connect employees and family members to the appropriate support as swiftly as possible, and be able to screen for risk and immediately triage to emergency support if necessary.

  Consistent quality of service: EFAP support requires a high standard of service where best practices are implemented and delivery and quality are consistent across a network of counsellors and other experts. 

  Support when it is needed: Job demands may spill over into personal time, and the separation between the two is increasingly blurred. EFAP services must be available 24-7, 365 days a year to meet the needs of today’s workforce and their families. 

  Accessibility: The increasing use of and preference for technology, especially for communication, means in-person counselling may not be the most desirable means of support for a growing segment of employees. Again, EFAP providers must be innovative not only with respect to services offered, but in how they offer them. 

“Taking advantage of technology and making services available through a variety of access points, such as phone, text, chat, web, social media and mobile apps, ensures that employees have options and stay within their comfort zone to obtain support,” says Fridella. 

  Reporting: The EFAP provider should track each organization’s EFAP usage rates and use this data to work strategically with the organization to ensure employees are getting the support they need. If the EFAP statistics are also tied into other HR programs, such as absence management and disability and productivity measures, in an integrated fashion, it is also possible to determine — and even improve — the EFAP’s ROI. 

“Changing needs require a commitment to continuous innovation on the part of providers and recognition by employers that an EFAP is not a static program,” says Fridella. 

That’s why organizations should assess their EFAPs on several criteria — digital access to support, holistic solutions linking physical and mental health, and proactive, preventative employee support —to ensure the best resources are available to employees.

Barb Veder is vice-president of global clinical services and clinical and research lead at Morneau Shepell in Ottawa. For more information, visit

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