Earlier this week, HRM talked about how EAPs can potentially address men’s issues relating to mental health in the workplace. In this article, we examine how effective these programs actually are.
Employee Assistance Programs in Australia (EAPs) are services offered to employees that assist in managing a range of issues. EAPs seem to be a workplace panacea, attending to both personal and professional issues to enhance outcomes for employees and organisations. EAPs are widely thought to reduce corporate costs by influencing the variables (absenteeism, productivity, performance and turnover, etc) responsible for these costs.
Globally, as organisations secure EAPs through tenders, there is great pressure for EAPs to offer whatever their clients’ organisations require or request. Organisations evaluate proposals from EAP providers based on varying internally derived criteria – rather than external benchmarks of best practice.
There are inherent problems with this context. The rapid growth in EAPs has been reactive, without a firm basis in evidence. Past research has revealed conflicting findings that make it difficult to identify if, how and when EAPs are effective.
By identifying the purpose and objectives of EAPs and the ways they are used in modern organisations, we hope with our research to evaluate their efficacy. Our participants were organisational leaders representing major industries in Australia. When asked about the rationale behind EAPs, participants commented that one of the major reasons was to offer an option of support to staff in the event of personal or professional change.
One not-for-profit interviewee commented: “Life isn’t siloed. There are times where aspects of workflow into personal life and vice versa… so if the EAP’s end result is a bit of balance for people around how to manage all those aspects of life, then that does impact people’s ability to focus and be productive at work as well.”
Free of charge
In addition, the fact that this support was available to staff free of charge was seen as having the potential to reduce barriers to utilisation, particularly for those individuals who might not otherwise have sought assistance. Using EAP to diminish risk was stated as a priority of all participants who considered them to be important in reducing financial costs and undesirable organisational outcomes associated with risk management and escalation. Areas of cost participants considered included high psychological injury, workers compensation and unfair dismissal claims, turnover, discrimination, conflict and formal complaints.
“We had a situation involving stalking of a staff member. It was ultimately resolved by providing them with support through EAP,” says a participant from a private company. They went on to add that “prior to the EAP, we had another case of stalking. The workers’ compensation claim was lodged and ultimately that went through the process and cost the organisation a lot of money. We were able to compare the two situations… and we could see the outcomes. Not only was there a reduction of cost to the organisation [due to the access to EAP], but the person’s employment was actually preserved.”
Some participants, mainly from government and not-for-profit sectors, also discussed the reasoning behind having an EAP as being ‘a tick the box thing’ or ‘a cheap insurance policy’;
Participants viewed EAPs as a financially sound investment to support, engage and develop staff when compared to the costs of turnover and stress claims. EAPs were seen as part of a ‘retention strategy’ that placed employees front and centre in achieving sustainable high performance.
How EAPs are used
For the most part, EAPs were primarily seen by all sectors as providing short-term, one-on-one counselling to staff for both personal and professional issues. These typically included three to six sessions per employee.
The other most frequently used services included ‘manager assist’ which is a management coaching service, and ‘critical incident management’ support which can include post-incident onsite and offsite debriefing, follow-up face-to-face or telephone counselling, and trauma training.
Most participants also reported that their EAP provider offered mediation, facilitation, debriefing, training, coaching, mentoring, redundancy and other services to staff. Participants made the point that there was no formal mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of the EAPs servicing their organisation. However some participants, from each sector, mentioned including questions in internal employee engagement or satisfaction surveys. Participants generally relied on anecdotal evidence as the basis of their perceptions.
The consensus was that partnership with EAPs was important and that it was favourable to embed EAPs in organisations. As an example, the feedback EAPs provided about ‘hot spots’ within organisations, largely through de-identified and generalised trend reports, was used to inform the mechanisms put in place to address and defuse potential issues. Often these mechanisms involved management and EAP providers actively working together to continue this feedback loop and pre-empt issue escalation.
Participants spoke of how this partnering with EAPs reflected positive changes in the culture of the workplace. “When there is an EAP need, they [staff] are not seeing it as a stigma. They go, I know why I’m going to EAP. You’re not putting me into a box. You’re actually trying to make me achieve my potential. And this is simply another tool in your box to help me achieve my potential.”
Beulah Joseph is a consultant/psychologist in organisational psychology and Dr Arlene Walker is the Associate Head of the School of Psychology at Deakin University.
This is an edited extract from the article “Employee assistance programs in Australia: the perspectives of organizational leaders across sectors” from Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, Vol 55, No 2, April 2017.
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