Here’s why people aren’t using employee assistance programs

It’s the eternal frustration of HR pro’s across the globe…

Over 90% of medium to large organizations have an EAP (employee assistance program) but depending on which report you read, only around 3 – 8% of employees actually use them.

So companies are paying billions to these companies but getting next to nothing in return for it – therefore having an EAP has become one of these ‘nice to have’ tick box exercises, but one that costs (on average) £10 per employee per month – that’s a very expensive tick box!

So why aren’t people using this resource?

Well unfortunately it isn’t that everyone is fine. Thanks to the Deloitte 2020 report on workplace wellbeing we know that not only is 1 in 4 of the general population suffering from poor mental health in any given year but that 1 in 6 employees are struggling with their mental health in ANY GIVEN WEEK.

There are so many EAP’s around these days that there really is something for everyone, and not just for mental health but that also cover physical health needs, substance misuse, finances & debt, gambling, pregnancy & family life – you name it! Some even give perks like free cinema tickets and coffee.

What’s going on and what can organizations do about it?

People don’t know what it is

If you say ‘EAP’ to the average worker you’re pretty likely to be met with a blank expression or maybe like you’ve grown a second head. The term ‘EAP’ or even ‘employee assistance scheme’ is a common one in HR circles but not so much out of them.

Consider using a different term like ‘employee benefits line’ or ‘employee support’ and most of all communicate that they exist. Not just once a year or in the induction pack, regularly and clearly. Consider posters, leaflets, newsletters and even credit card-sized information cards with a contact number and what people can get help with and if you’ve tries these, don’t give up. Because you never know when that information might become suddenly useful to someone who has previously ignored it.

McDonalds doesn’t show us one advert a year and say “Buy our burgers, they’re good”. It’s a constant narrative with different approaches and reminders that builds to a general awareness and acceptance. We can replicate that approach, albeit with tens of millions less spent on marketing costs…

It sounds intimidating

Another personal bugbear of mine is when EAP names sound clinical or too corporate which can make them sound a bit daunting and not just something you would happily pick up the phone to call. Words like ‘health’, ‘emotional’, and ‘counseling’ in the provider’s name can bring up thoughts of hospitals or therapists clinics – not something you want when you just want a bit of advice on stress or you’re grieving a recent loss.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly successful EAP providers out there with names like these but I often wonder if uptake could be improved by making them sound more approachable.

They don’t know the process

If I split a room of employees down the middle, one side of HR professionals, the other of everyone else, and asked ‘Do you need to speak to HR to access your EAP?’ there would be a resounding ‘NO’ from the HR side but silence & confusion from the other side.

People often think that they need permission from HR or management to speak to the EAP or they think it’s not a free service (I’m yet to hear of a single reputable EAP provider that charges service uses for using them).

Or people don’t understand the process or what will be asked of them when they do call them. Will the person at the end of the phone ask loads of invasive questions? Will they speak to some kind of counselor straight away or a receptionist who will send them on a wild goose chase in order to speak to the right person.

Sometimes it’s as simple as communicating the process involved, highlighting the fact that it’s completely free, and maybe even give case studies or flow charts of what happens when someone calls the EAP.

The stigma

OK so let’s address the elephant in the room – Stigma. It’s arguably one of the biggest battles we have when it comes to mental health. It can not only worsen existing conditions but even cause new ones and can cost lives because it stops people from speaking up and getting the support they need and deserve.

I could (and probably will) write a lengthy blog post about how we can tackle the stigma, but it largely boils down to this one simple goal:

Make mental health part of everyday conversation

In the same way, we chat about the weather, football, or that our elbow is playing up again we should be speaking honestly and openly about how we’re feeling that day. In the same way, as we speak about drinking 8 glasses of water to avoid dehydration or eating 5 fruit and veg, we should be talking about self-care and learning our own indicators that we’re struggling to avoid poor mental health.

That way when someone isn’t doing so great, the first thing they do is pick up the phone and ask for some help rather than bottle it up and hope it goes away because they know that, like with our physical health, our mental health is on a sliding scale that is constantly moving in response to what’s going on. And when things slide too far in the wrong direction, we see the doctor, physio, therapist, or just simply talk it through with someone.

Confidentiality

This is an interesting one and arguably one of the toughest to address.

According to a survey conducted in 2020 by The Mental Health Foundation, 40% of people fear that their boss finding out about a mental health problem could jeopardize their career. Several other studies suggest figures between 30% and 50%.

So, it’s clear that a lot of people wouldn’t want work finding out about their mental health problems, therefore if they can’t be absolutely sure that speaking to their EAP won’t be fed back to work, are they really likely to call?

The simple fact is that EAP’s are a confidential service. What we say to them stays between us and them and at no point is it fed back into people at work.

Yes, EAP’s can (and should in my opinion) give stats to the organization about how many people used the service in a certain time period but that’s completely anonymous.

However, one of two things (or both) might be going on here.

1. The business isn’t communicating this fact with employees because we’re assuming they know already (just because we know this, doesn’t mean they do)

2. Even if we do communicate it, people don’t believe or trust this and think there’s some kind of spying going on. Yes, this might sound ridiculous and would be so illegal I can’t even put it into words, but we’re in the age of distrust and conspiracy theories.

Sometimes it’s as simple as communicating that contacting the EAP is 100% confidential and not a single person at work needs to know about it. Other times it might be a case of taking a deeper look at the organization, Is there an undercurrent of distrust or fear that needs addressing?

When it comes to increasing engagement with our EAP’s you might be sat there thinking ‘I’ve done everything I can do and it’s not working!’. I get it, it’s frustrating but try not to get disheartened, because you just never know who is listening quietly, let me give you a quick example.

As a business owner, I rely heavily on social media content to generate business leads. The idea is that if I give value to people, they will want to work with me knowing what I can offer. But sometimes I can go for weeks, giving what I feel is good content and I get nothing, no engagement, no leads, zip. Then suddenly I get an email or a DM from someone I’ve never heard from before “Hey Pete, I love your content, can we have a chat?”. This has happened more times than I can count.

So don’t give up, keep going and keep pushing the message

It’s free. It’s confidential. They can help with XYZ. This is how it works.

And most importantly

Asking for help isn’t weakness, it’s strength.