With Mental Health Awareness Month taking place in October, AccessEAP CEO, Sally Kirkright believes the Employee Assistance Program industry can do more to ensure Australian organisations are getting the most from their program.
A recent IBIS report on the EAP industry suggests the usage rate in certain industries could be as low as 5%. With one in five people experiencing a mental health issue in any 12 month period and the number of Australian workers with access to an EAP rising, the usage rate should be much higher.
“Having worked in the EAP industry for a number of years, I’m amazed at how low the usage rates tend to be,” says Kirkright. “EAPs are designed to promote positive organisational behaviour, enhance employee well-being and improve workplace productivity. It is a confidential service that is free of charge to employees and so it is difficult to understand why the usage rates can be so low. EAP usage globally is low and even in the US where the EAP market is far more mature, the usage rate is reported to be a low 6 per cent. Usage is industry specific with high users in commonwealth government, health and education where the services are promoted and use by employees is encouraged.”
Why so low?
Kirkright believes that the main reason for such a low usage rate is a lack of awareness and the stigma associated with mental health. “The lack of societal mental health awareness and acceptance within client organisations as well as a lack of understanding of the confidentiality of the program contributes to the low usage rate. Whereas the awareness is growing slowly, a gap still exists between awareness and organisations actually recognising and responding to their responsibilities when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace. Some employees are aware their organisation has an EAP; however, they don’t know what it means and how it can help them.
Organisations need CEO’s and HR managers to place the issue of mental health on the agenda. While mental health in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility, managers, business owners and leaders play an even more critical role. They have the capacity to influence colleagues and implement the necessary changes to work towards workplace wellbeing.
“Service providers need to be facilitating managers and business owners with mental health awareness and education. Holding regular EAP Awareness and Mental Health Awareness Sessions will help give employees a better understanding of mental health as well as an awareness of the services available to them and how they can help. Raising awareness and improving knowledge of how EAP’s can help also normalises usage. If employees are concerned about the confidentiality of the program, it is vital to reiterate the private nature of discussions. It also helps if managers have a better understanding of programs available and the help available so they can talk to employees about the available services.
More than ticking the box
“We find with some organisations that a company culture exists where they simply want to tick the box when it comes to mental health: they are interested in providing the service to employees but are not promoting the program or wanting employees to actually use the service. The introduction of WHS Regulations (2012) states that it is the duty of the workplace to assess and manage risks present in the workplace. It is important to remember that this also includes psychological risk. That said, numerous organisations believe a well-run EAP can be of immense benefit and they work together with their provider to raise awareness and provide education for their employees. These organisations understand the long term benefit of a successful EAP and the positive impact on employee wellbeing and organisation health through improved productivity and reduction in workers compensation claims.”
Kirkright believes it is evident that providers are not doing enough to educate managers. “Mental health charity, SANE Australia conducted a survey last year which found that 95% of respondents reported that their managers needed significantly more education around mental health issues and better skills-based training on how best to manage these in the workplace.
“Service providers need to educate organisations, both on the health and financial benefits of employees using the service. Successful EAP implementation can lead to increased productivity and lower absenteeism due to the beneficial effects on wellbeing measures. The IBIS industry report found that across client organisations, the average return on investment due to improvements in employee productivity was over $10,000 per client employee," Kirkright says.
“The report also showed that there was a decrease of almost one day off in the following eight weeks after client employees discussed personal, family or workplace issues. Across a large organisation with high staff numbers, a large decrease in absenteeism can be a major contributor to employee cost savings and increased work efficiency."
There is still a general lack of understanding of what EAP’s can actually do for an organisation and what services they can provide. In Kirkright's experience, there are a huge number of Australian workers who are unaware that Employee Assistance Programs even exist. Most EAP services include counselling for personal, family and workplace issues but many also provide Organisation Development Services which adopts a pro-active and preventative approach focused on equipping employees with greater knowledge and practical skills to enhance workplace wellbeing. Training initiatives focus on empowering individuals and building on their existing skills to promote positive wellbeing and create a mentally healthy workplace.
“An effective EAP provider can scope, develop and deliver specialist training workshops to meet specific needs in different industries," says Kirkright. "Not only do EAP providers need to be fully aware of the scope of an organisation client’s needs, but they also need to be mindful of the particular needs in that industry so as to design a program that will give maximum benefit to the client."
The stigma of mental health makes it difficult for those suffering to seek help and in turn has a huge impact on the usage rate. The fear of stigma contributes another major stress with many that suffer from depression believing that stigma and prejudice is as distressing as the symptoms themselves. Kirkright adds that everyone has a role in creating a mentally healthy community that supports recovery and social inclusion and reduces discrimination. There is even evidence to suggest that despite an increase in mental health awareness, stigma has actually intensified over the last 40 years.
“EAP providers should use events such as Mental Health Awareness Month, Stress Down Day and R U Ok? Day to promote the awareness of mental health and help reduce the stigma," suggests Kirkright. "If client employees don’t utilise the services provided by EAP’s and the usage rate remains low, everyone loses. Employees suffering from mental health issues won’t seek help and organisations won’t experience the potential health and financial benefits that a mentally healthy workplace can bring. It is in the interest of all EAP providers to raise awareness of the issue of mental health in workplaces and what they can do to eradicate the problem and Mental Health Awareness Month is the perfect place to start.”
AccessEAP is a leading Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) provider in Australia. We have been assisting companies across Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia since 1989. As an Australian owned provider with a not-for-profit orientation, our surplus profit is distributed by the Curran Access Children’s Foundation to support children’s welfare programs and indigenous children at risk in the community.