Are employee assistance programs really effective?

It's mental health awareness month – how can HR build a solid business case for EAPs?

Are employee assistance programs really effective?

World Mental Health Month is upon us yet again – which begs the question of whether employers are doing enough to support employees struggling to get through a second year of the pandemic. A report by Wunderman Thompson found that almost a quarter of employees in Singapore said they’ve been suffering from anxiety or depression throughout the crisis.

What’s more alarming was that one in four respondents said they have considered suicide at some point during the pandemic, with 5% saying they think of it every day, or at least once or twice a week (8%). Top reasons cited included financial stress (55%), work stress (47%), job insecurity (21%) and long working hours (18%). Increased conflicts with loved ones (19%) also hit harder on some, while others said they’ve been struggling with an increased sense of isolation (13%) and the inevitable loss of privacy or personal space (9%) since they started working from home.

Despite increasing discussions around mental health in Singapore, the perceived stubborn stigma remains, which has stopped many (68%) from reaching out for support. Another half added that they’d avoid or delay seeking professional help. One in three feel like they can’t even talk to their friends about their problems, with one in three uncomfortable with speaking with family.

READ MORE: These staff were ignored after raising mental health issues

Do EAPs work?

How employers usually help at this point is to implement and publicise an internal employee assistance program (EAP) that promises to offer confidential and effective professional support for those struggling with mental health stressors. While popular, we sought to find out if EAPs worked and whether HR can include additional initiatives to increase an EAP’s rate of success.

There were no clear studies done in Asia, but the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) in Australia found some significant findings surrounding EAPs. A 2018 study done in partnership with LifeWorks, conducted across 28 countries compared metrics at the start of an EAP until the end of three months.

Their analysis found a 16% level of improvement across the five outcomes measured. Key findings from the study found that:

  • Work absenteeism decreased by 27%
  • Work presenteeism was reduced by 26%
  • Life satisfaction was increased by 23%
  • Workplace distress was decreased by 14%
  • Work engagement was increased by 8%

READ MORE: Mental health: Are employees 'too busy' to seek help?

What can HR do to improve EAP's effectiveness?

EAPA’s study offered a compelling business case for companies to adopt EAPs. However, life every people-related initiative, adopting a program or tool is one thing, but ensuring it’s success is another. HR may face issues like low take-up rate or a general culture of mistrust around EAPs, despite clear communications around their aim of offering free, confidential, professional help. HRD spoke with Alyssa Wang, HR director, Asia-Pacific, at ADM to get her insights and experience on the issue.

“There is a dilemma,” Wang told HRD. “On one hand, this is a very good tool. On the other hand, in many of the cases it’s just based on money.” Since a hefty amount of investment is involved, be it in time or money for programs, Wang said the issue of managing mental well-being shouldn’t just be HR’s responsibility.

For initiatives like EAPs to be successful, all leaders at the company must be on board and role model healthy habits to encourage staff to speak up and take care of themselves better. “You need to make sure that your leaders are on top of this,” she said. “First of all you need to make them understand what those programs are…and then they need to understand how to get access. What kind of help can they get? And all these kinds of things.

“Then you need leaders to be the advocate of that [program] and they need to encourage an open discussion and normalise conversations on mental health. When you [leaders] set the tone, it makes staff feel comfortable to talk about [how] we use EAP just like a normal HR program. Then people will follow you. You repeat the model and they will start to use it as a tool, instead of being sensitive or shy of talking about those tools.”

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