Hickock Boardman Benefits

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Employee Assistance Programs: Providing Needed Resources That Are Sadly Underutilized

Several years ago, I was working for an organization when tragedy struck – an employee was murdered by a client, and the event was witnessed by numerous coworkers.  It was a devastating event, that was an immense tragedy on many levels.  One of the many responses to this event was to bring EAP services directly to the employees. EAP counselors were available at the work site, and by phone, for as long as they were needed.  These services were invaluable for assisting employees in the grief process and helping the organization to move forward.

This experience taught me first-hand how crucial these services can be in a time of crisis, but also reminded me of how important it is for employees to access these services to help manage and cope with the everyday stressors of life. Stress, anxiety, and depression – these conditions are rampant in the American workforce. We see headlines to this effect regularly, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite job-related stress as the nation’s leading workplace health problem. While the vast majority of employers (97% of large employers) offer EAP services, only 5.5% of employees used these services in 2018 [source: National Business Group on Health]. This low utilization rate rings true for the client organizations we serve in Vermont and northern New England as well. Given the need, why is this service so underutilized?

There are no clear answers to this question, but several likely culprits.

1. Stigma associated with mental health conditions . I am a Gen X’er, and I have seen in the course of my lifetime a marked change in the language we use when speaking of mental health issues.  We are slowly moving away from the idea that mental health conditions are some form of personal “weakness” as opposed to a medical issue. Simply the transformation to the term “substance use disorder” from terminology such as “substance abuse” or “addict” is a major step in the right direction. Additionally, I find millennials, and the most recent generation to the enter the workforce, Gen Z (my children) are much more open to discussing mental health.  Stress, anxiety and depression are part of their dialogue when discussing day to day life. While a promising shift, this transformation is ongoing, and there is still a reluctance to admit to needing services, particularly when those services are being provided through the employer.

2. Trust and Confidentiality . EAP services are contracted and paid for by the employer.  Often those services are packaged with the benefits provided through health or life insurance.  Given these facts, many employees question the confidentiality of the services and worry that their information will somehow end up in the hands of their employer. The best way to counter these concerns is to have the EAP provider reiterate, time and again, that their services are confidential, and explain how.  Further, employers should be working diligently to build a culture of trust throughout their organization. I once heard an employee say they would never use EAP because, “they’re just going to use that