Given the choice, most people would probably want to work for a business that they feel cares about them. Equally, most employers are aware that not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also help them attract and retain top talent. Of course, they also know that when employees are feeling worried or stressed, it can have an adverse effect on their engagement and productivity – which isn’t good for them or the business.
The pandemic years saw a growing number of organisations acknowledging their role in supporting the wellbeing of their workforces through periods of lockdowns and isolation, leading to many introducing or enhancing their provisions.
Implementing employee assistance programmes (EAPs) is one way of doing this. In fact, research by the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA UK) earlier this year indicated that three-quarters (75%) of the workforce now have EAP services available to them, compared to just 15% in 2003.
And EAPs don’t just offer one-off support; they can provide a whole host of help throughout an employee’s lifetime.
Catherine Bennett, director of engagement at Access People, says: “Many people don’t realise quite how many things an EAP can help with. We’re all human and we all have life events we have to manage, many of which we deal with while in employment. An EAP isn’t just counselling, it’s an information service that’s there to support employees through crises and life events which we all inevitably face at some point in our lives and during our employment.”
Of course, not everyone will need support simultaneously, and there will be times in people’s lives when they may rely on employer-provided help more than ever. So how can organisations ensure their workforces get help when it’s most needed?
The age factor
Karl Bennett, chair of the EAPA, says: “Evidence suggests that it’s the younger age groups that are struggling most with the anxieties of modern times. The cost-of-living crisis is having a disproportionately higher effect on those groups with lower incomes and less job security.
“Older staff might have more to juggle, but they might well also have stronger support networks and more financial security that helps them cope.”
He added that a Deloitte report last year suggested younger employees under 30 had been more affected by the pandemic, with about two-thirds of respondents in this age group saying they had left their job in the previous year or were planning to do so due to poor mental wellbeing. Additionally, a recent study by TELUS Health revealed that it was the 20 to 29 age group who were least willing to talk about mental health with their employer because they were concerned about the implications for their career.
Data from Spectrum.Life in 2022, however, indicates it’s not just younger workforces that need help. It found the top three age cohorts for EAP utilisation were 36-40, which accounted for 15% of overall users, followed by those aged 41-45 and 31-35, accounting for 12.5% and 12% of all users respectively.
Emelina Ellis, chief clinical operations officer at Spectrum.Life, comments: “Individuals that have moved out of the family home for the first time may be struggling, trying to figure things out or deal with loneliness, and EAPs can help offer mental health support when required, at a time that is most convenient in a busy schedule.
“The Baby Boomer generation may be faced with ageing friends or family and potentially considering their own mortality. EAPs can offer legal assistance that can help with things such as will writing. Also, invaluable bereavement support, including aspects for family members to consider when a loved one passes away.”
Tim Barnes, director of customer service, health and wellbeing at HCML, believes that as people live longer and the working age increases, improving the health of the working age population and maintaining good health is becoming more important.
He says: “It’s now widely understood that better employee health leads to business productivity and economic growth. Giving employees the tools and support they need to take control of their own health and wellbeing reduces the prevalence of ill-health.
“While many businesses are unable to offer healthcare plans to the whole of their workforce, providing an EAP that addresses a whole range of health and wellbeing concerns would offer a tangible return and value on investment and employee experience.”
Times of need
Regardless of age, there will be times in people’s lives when they need third-party support.
Access People’s Bennett explains: “At times of crisis, such as the loss of a loved one or experiencing health or financial difficulty, EAPs are crucial. The challenge with crises such as these is immediate support is needed and they can often be unexpected. It’s that 24/7, confidential support available immediately in the form of an EAP that is needed during times like these for employees. The breadth of support an employee can get from the EAP means it can support employees immediately with a range of challenges they may face.”
Andrew Berrie, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, believes that creating mentally healthy workplaces should be high on every employer’s agenda because it benefits the entire workforce, not just those with mental health problems. It also saves employers money, with recent data from Deloitte UK finding a return of £5.30 for every £1 invested in workplace wellbeing interventions, he explains.
Berrie adds: “An EAP can be a source of vital support at times of change or personal upheaval – the counselling and one-to-one support it offers outside of a work environment allows people to really open up about the problems they are facing and get the help they need. This applies to both work and non-work-related problems. We know, for example, that the pandemic had a huge impact on people’s mental health and the current cost-of-living crisis is also taking its toll. The more help and support employees can access, the better.”
Communication is key
While ensuring EAP services are well communicated is important, employers also should ensure they are integrated into the organisation’s wider wellbeing support, according to Colin Fitzgerald, distribution director – group protection at Legal & General.
“We fully support the need to segment communications to help get the right message, to the right people, at the right time. And life stage represents one way of doing this. But this approach could well differ according to your organisation’s goals and workforce needs. It’s also our view that the messaging itself should reflect joined-up thinking; for instance, EAP as part of integrated mental health and wellbeing support – a whole person approach that ensures a focus on ‘good work’ is baked in, alongside benefits and services,” he explains.
“Getting to know your audience is key when designing a communication strategy that connects. But evidence suggests that this approach might be the exception rather than the norm. Our annual Wellbeing at Work Barometer found a significant disparity between employers and employees when it comes to how well their organisations are doing on ‘communicating benefits and wellbeing in a way that boosts awareness, relevance and value to individuals’; 76% of employers said (net) ‘Good’, in comparison to just 47% of employees who said the same.”
David Williams, head of group risk, Towergate Health & Protection, thinks there needs to be a mental shift among employees so they instinctively turn to EAPs, rather than online search engines, when they have a problem.
He says: “People would then start using EAPs much more proactively. One thing we’ve seen about EAPs in the past is that they are quite reactive service. It’s only when something is going wrong that people think of using their EAP, so it’d be nice if we somehow turn that around.”
Williams also highlighted that people who aren’t aware of they have an EAP or don’t utilise it end up spending money when they may not necessarily need to.
He explains: “You might get legal advice and then end up paying for it yourself, whereas the services might already exist in your pocket. Employers should push the EAP as more of a proactive solution, rather than just simply as a go-to when something’s gone wrong.”
From mental health to financial wellbeing, it’s clear that forward-thinking employers can use EAPs to support staff all the way through their employment lifecycle for the benefit of their workforce and the business itself.