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Why now is an opportune time to revisit your employee assistance program

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing

By Becky Smith | February 04, 2019

The employee assistance program (EAP) can be an important and versatile benefit that supports the various stages of their lives and helps them meet different lives and career challenges, regardless of whether they’re early-career workers facing student debt and new surroundings, mid-career workers dealing with reskilling, upskilling, or mandatory learning and development or workers approaching retirement.

Despite the potential, EAPs have historically been under-used by employees, with observed utilization rates of about 3-5% reported by some Willis Towers Watson customers.

The good news is many employees are looking to improve their employee assistance programs. And 61% of employed Respondents to the Willis Towers Watson 2018 Best Practices in Health Care Use Survey indicated plans to implement a behavioral health strategy and 66% of respondents indicated plans to redesign their EAPs to better address emotional and financial wellbeing for employees and dependents by 2020. And many are doing so in the larger context of improving employee wellbeing across all its dimensions: emotional, financial, physical and social.

As employers recognize the need to better support workers in overall wellbeing, more organizations seek to better integrate the range of resources available to employees and their families via an integrated and holistic wellbeing strategy. Now is the time to reassess the role, scope and positioning of the EAP in the portfolio of resources provided.

Redesigning the employee assistance program

Conducting a current-state assessment of EAP that is designed for their population’s specific needs. First, take an inventory of current behavioral health, EAP, work/life resources and other related programs that the EAP would integrate with, including disability and medical, and identify any emotional wellbeing gaps in the holistic wellbeing program.

Next, review behavioral health, EAP, pharmacy and disability claims and specific provider utilization rates, and analyze absenteeism rates and productivity metrics to provide context for selecting the right mix of EAP components to cater toward the population’s needs. For example, should the EAP be carved in with the traditional medical/behavioral health vendor to provide seamless integration from both an administrative and continuum-of-care perspective? Or, should the EAP be carved out to a standalone EAP vendor for a more customized offering with targeted interventions?

Modernizing the design of the EAP should be done in the context of the expanded capabilities that EAPs have developed to encompass. Beyond the traditional EAP role of marital, financial, emotional and substance-abuse support, EAPs have been expanded to serve other personal needs, including but not limited to, legal referrals, adoption support and eldercare support. Providing immediate support in these areas will help to address the issue of cost-effectiveness and cost-effectiveness and make it possible to build a business case for redesigning the EAP.

An effective employee assistance program should:

  • Identify non-medical personal issues that could be affecting employee attendance or performance at work
  • Act as accessible resource for employees to address personal needs by promoting health and wellness and facilitate early intervention strategies (for example, in stress management)
  • Proactively identify clinical issues and identify care or disease management needs
  • Manage cost drivers and productivity-related issues, including sick leave, workers’ compensation, employee turnover and internal employee-to-manager conflict
  • Provide another avenue to address job performance issues

Positioning the employee assistance program for the future

To position the EAP for the future, they should start with their resources. For many, the ability to work effectively, achieve emotional balance, become financially secure and maintain social connections is the goal.

Delivering the support to achieve these goals by defining, positioning, integrating and delivering a wellbeing experience through an articulated policy, using a myriad of service providers. These typically include a behavioral health resource, EAP, financial planning and retirement security support, life balance resources, and wellness or health improvement services.

Consider the following questions: Where does each fit? What role does each play? How do they coordinate and communicate? How do they avoid redundancy? How do they integrate and deliver a seamless wellbeing experience? What metrics should apply to monitor progress and measure success across the various dimensions?

The traditional EAP risks being outdated, ineffective and redundant unless it is reassessed in the larger wellbeing context. The time for rethinking the EAP is here, but not in a silo. Self-awareness, mental health, resilience, stress management and stability, emotional crisis, life crises and illness.

Delivering optimal wellbeing program helps sustain worker retention, improve engagement and ultimately boost productivity to deliver superior business results. The employee assistance program – done right – is a critical component.


Becky Smith
Lead Associate, Watson Custom Care Management Unit's (CCMU) Solution and Health Management Practice

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