The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) industry can do more to improve the mental health of employees in the workplace and ensure that organisations are getting the most from their EAP, believes AccessEAP CEO Sally Kirkright.
Kirkright says that EAP providers are not doing enough to raise awareness, encourage early intervention or advise on prevention strategies of mental health issues within their customer organisations. As a result, the reputation of the EAP industry is suffering.
An IBIS report suggests the EAP usage rate in certain industries could be as low as five percent. 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 numbers just don’t stack up – usage rates of EAP should be much higher. This raises the question of why the rate is low and what more can be done to support employers.
“Having worked in the EAP industry for a number of years, I’m amazed at how low the usage rates tend to be,” remarks Kirkright. “EAPs are designed to promote positive organisational behaviour through raising awareness of mental health and reducing the stigma, enhance employee health and well-being, and ultimately 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 six percent. Usage is industry specific with high users in commonwealth government, health and education where the services are promoted and use by employees is encouraged.”
Kirkright believes that the main reason for such a low usage rate is a lack of mental health 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 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,” she says.
Organisations need for 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.
“EAP service providers need to be facilitating managers and business owners with mental health awareness and education, as well as helping them to understand the risks in their business and what they can do to manage associated risks, such as providing a support culture,” Kirkright adds.
“Holding regular EAP Awareness and Mental Health Awareness Sessions will 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 to normalise 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,” Kirkright advises.
“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.”
Unfortunately, in some organisations 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.
Kirkright believes it is evident that providers are not doing enough to educate managers. “Mental health charity SANE Australia conducted a survey recently which found that 95 percent 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. EAPs have the capability, expertise and capacity to do this – it is our mandate.
“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. But we are talking about people – our greater asset as employers, and ROI isn’t necessarily appropriate – the most appropriate measure is whether the organisation is providing a psychological safe work culture,” she 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,” Kirkright notes. “In my 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 adopt a pro-active and preventative approach focused on equipping employees with greater knowledge and practical skills to enhance workplace wellbeing, such as conflict management, how to have great conversations, and coaching to provide leaders and managers with the skills to have difficult conversations. 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. 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 who suffer from depression believing that stigma and prejudice is as distressing as the symptoms themselves. 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,” Kirkright says.
“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. If client employees don’t utilise the services provided by EAPs 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,” Kirkright concludes.
Image (lead): Kurhan / 123RF Stock Photo
Image: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo