Within a Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health 2018 research paper into what caused Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to be successful, one EA practitioner noted “In order to make the (Employee Assistance) program successful and sustainable, unfortunately, you need a tragic or a big event.” It could be argued that COVID-19 is such an event.
EAPs and COVID-19
Girard Dorney from HRM Online interviewed a number of EAP providers, to get a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on providers and the services they deliver. He discovered that in the first couple of weeks of COVID-19 induced lockdown, we were busy focused on meeting our immediate needs; as evidenced by emptied supermarket shelves. During this time calls to EAPs actually reduced. But once this initial panic subsided, employees started reaching out to EAPs for support.
The challenges faced by EAP clients during this time had broad similarities. The most predominant underlying response was anxiety. Whether this was anxiety due to difficulty adjusting to new routines, to the reality of less work, or no work, or to frontline workers confronted with possibly contacting COVID-19. Most were also dealing with the pressures of working from home, juggling family responsibilities, digital burnout and isolation. When organisations began planning the return to work, people broadly reacted the same way, wanting to stay at home, where they felt safe. But isolating from human contact has its own set of issues.
According to Life Street founder Paul Flanagan, the speed of change during COVID-19 was also atypical. “With COVID, we were surprised how quickly peoples’ needs and moods shifted, changing over a matter of weeks rather than months.” Some of the more encouraging types of calls came from managers. “Wellbeing is right up there on the list of priorities during this time,” says Flanagan. Managers were reaching out for assistance to ensure they were still connecting with their team members to ensure they were getting the support they needed at this critical time.
AccessEAP’s clinical services director Marcela Slepica noted, “In the past, if an employee was having mental health problems or they were struggling with something, people would just go to the EAP then they thought that was the end of it. Whereas now there’s a much greater interest in learning and understanding what they can do.”
Collaboration and employee wellbeing
Employers collaborating with EAPs and committing more seriously to the overall wellbeing of all their employees may be a trend accelerated by COVID-19. In witnessing an era where organisations care more about wellbeing, its possible EAPs have circled back to their original purpose.
EAPs have come a long way since their first iterations back in 19th century temperance movement in the US. During this time, alcohol consumption shifted from being an open, accepted occurrence during a work day to being frowned upon and linked to industrial accidents. Whilst employees still drank, their poor health and productivity was something many companies felt they had a moral duty to fix. One of the earliest inebriate homes was started by a business owner who rehabilitated an employee by having them stay at his own house.
In the early days, employee wellbeing was the purpose and goal. It was perceived as a moral, even familial, responsibility, rather than a business benefit. The programs stemming from these early beginnings gradually expanded to encompass other employee behavioural problems and began to be referred to as Employee Assistance Programs.
Outsourcing a proactive solution
The journey from rehabilitation in the business owners’ home to outsourcing EAPs happened gradually, but is now seen as the norm. Confidentiality and cost-effectiveness are two key reasons given for using external EAP providers. This outsourcing shift also led to the diversification of EAP services. Today EAP providers often offer training, mediation, consultation and a variety of other services aimed at prevention, rather than just addressing the immediate wellbeing crises of individual employees.
Will this transition from seeing EAPs as the port of call for emotional crisis to taking a more proactive approach last? KPMG’s Our New Reality: Predictions after COVID-19, argues that the pandemic has permanently shifted peoples’ attitudes. They suggest organisational leaders will play more of a proactive role in caring about the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.
The 2020 Metlife Employee Benefit Trends Study highlighted that “employers who understand their employees’ experience and needs – and take action to help their employees manage the challenges they face inside and outside of work – will have a more engaged, productive and successful workforce. Adopting a holistic model of wellbeing, which consists of physical, financial, mental and social components, can help employees manage the issues and concerns they face and ultimately feel more protected, secure and cared for, especially when it comes to financial wellness, which is a top concern for employees right now.”
How can we work together?
A Gartner survey of HR leaders around the world found that two-thirds of organisations had introduced at least one new wellness benefit by late March 2020.
“(Organisations) see a need for a more holistic program that looks at employee wellbeing in a broader sense. Not just for people with problems, but to help improve and support the wellbeing of all employees. That includes things such as helping employees manage their own wellbeing with online tools and programs, as well as professional support.”
Slepica has been encouraged by organisations asking ‘How can we work together?’ They want to proactively collaborate, rather than saying, “This crisis has occurred. Can you look after all of our people?” If EAPs are going to benefit organisations they need to be a true partner, offering a range of support across the employee lifecycle. “It’s about working with your EAP, not handing things over to your EAP.”
Money101 has been helping EAPs deliver financial wellbeing solutions to organisations since 2013.
Contact us to discover how we can work with you to deliver proactive holistic Workplace Wellbeing solutions.
 Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health 2018, qualitative study interviewing EA practitioners