What is an Employee Assistance Plan?
If you are an employee, or you were one in the past, there’s a good chance that you have heard of an EAP, which is short for Employee Assistance Program or Employee Assistance Plan. Even if you have never heard of it, it’s one of those phrases that you can easily understand from the meaning of the words. Quite probably, the word that will stick out is “assistance”, and this is something that every employee needs to know about, and every employer needs to consider implementing.
The simple definition is that an EAP is an assistance plan provided to you by your boss. It is more than just a set of policies and rules on providing some sort of assistance to employees. It is a plan that affects not just employees but also the employers that developed, designed and are implementing the EAP.
THE LOWDOWN ON EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PLANS
It is pretty straightforward, actually. EAPs are essentially “benefit programs” that are set up to help you when it comes to dealing with work-related or personal problems. They can even help you on both fronts. These programs also deal with other difficulties or issues that have a significant effect on job performance, physical and mental health, as well as your overall emotional well-being.
The program is your boss’ defense when you accuse him of not caring.
How EAPs have taken root
We all know how bosses can sometimes be a pain in the ass. What could possibly have caused them to think about your well-being when designing these programs?
The onset of EAPs can be traced to the first half of the 21st century. During the 1930s, companies noticed how the culture of workplace alcoholism or drinking on the job was adversely affecting the job performance and overall productivity of employees. Soon, companies started setting up alcoholism programs in their own firms, specifically to police their own ranks and to ensure that the problem does not affect the company’s bottom line.
The positive results produced by the Alcoholics Anonymous, now more commonly known as AA, became a major turning point, marking the beginning of the increased adoption of EAP by companies for their employees. Once businesses noticed the positive effects of the implementation of these EAPs, particularly on employee productivity, institutionalization of EAP in business management and administration seemed a natural – and even expected – result.
So we can see that the program is really a win-win situation that favors you, and your boss also gets a benefit when you perform better.
What EAPs have evolved into today
To say that EAPs are broad would be an understatement. These things are there for almost any problem you can think of. They have wide coverage when it comes to the types of assistance offered, and the different options for different employees. It is safe to say that a few decades down the line, the EAP implemented by one company will almost always differ in one way or another from that implemented by the next company, even if they are in the same line of business or industry.
Think about it: The concept of EAPs was mainly jumpstarted by the rising rate of alcoholism among employees. A number of decades down the line, programs have been designed to deal with other problems faced by employees in the same way. The only common denominator is the fact that these problems all affect performance on the workplace if they are not solved. That’s why we now often hear about EAPs focused on matters such as relationships, financial management, family problems, and even psychological disorders.
If we talk about problems in the workplace, however, there are already fixed rules and policies in place that are designed specifically to address these types of issues. For example, if you are having differences in opinion or personality clashes with your co-workers, they are usually addressed by regular team-building activities. Stress experienced due to overlapping work schedules can be resolved by reviewing the scheduling of work or the job timetables.
Perhaps this is the reason why EAPs are mostly focused on helping employees with their personal problems, such as those that they have at home or with their families.
To further understand the concept of EAPs, it would be interesting to take note of the defining characteristics provided by various authorities.
- EAPs are voluntary and offered for free. The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) described EAP as a voluntary, work-based program that offers free assistance and aid services to “employees who have personal and/or work-related problems”. The moment you become an employee of a company, you are immediately entitled to the services included in the company’s existing EAP. In other words, you can get counseling, assessment, and other similar services without having to pay for them.
- EAPs are work-based or employment-based. (We’re still on the OPM definition of EAP). If not for the fact that your work productivity as an employee is affected, the concept of EAP may not be getting as much attention as it is getting today. Managers and business owners are fully aware that employee productivity is directly related to the business’ growth and profitability. Highly productive employees will drive up the bottom line of a company. In contrast, those who are plagued with mental problems and emotional issues, even if it has something to do with their families or home lives, are bound to display a lower productivity level that affects company results. It is for this reason that these problems will still be considered as “work-based”, even if they are mainly originating from a place other than where the actual work is located. The ripple effect of any problems that you might have at home is likely to be felt at your place of work. Therefore, these problems are still considered to be work-based, and must be addressed through the implementation of EAP.
- EAPs cover a whole slew of issues and problems affecting employees, specifically their overall wellness. As mentioned earlier, they are no longer just focused on alcoholic employees. The coverage of EAPs ranges from simple or common workplace issues such as stress and burnout, to more complex problems such as depression, grief, and psychological disorders. This is in keeping with the main concern of EAPs, which is to help employees maintain a mental and emotional well-being that will ensure their job performance and productivity does not suffer.
- EAPs are confidential. The fact that a company has an EAP may be public information, including the services included and the finer details of their provision and implementation. However, confidentiality applies with respect to the particular problems that you are facing and the solutions suggested in the program. In other words, getting help in an EAP will not leave your dirty linen exposed in any way. This is in recognition of the employee’s right to privacy. When you go for any assistance in an EAP, you are seeking assistance to enable you to cope with your problems, and announcing to all and sundry that you are having problems is not one way of going about it.
- EAPs are an integral part of company and organizational culture. Most companies include it in their larger human resource management or personnel management programs. As such, they have written policies and implementing rules and regulations that must be followed in the application of the Program. As in other company policies, putting the EAP in black-and-white not only lends it greater credibility, but it also puts everything in perspective, particularly how companies value their human resources and their general outlook with regards to productivity.
- EAPs may involve internal and external sources. Large corporations, or those who have ample resources to run their own EAPs, can implement the plans wholly from within as standalone departments. In some cases, however, companies outsource it, working with external EAP service providers and professionals that specialize in offering EAP services. Outsourcing the program is more preferred. This is mainly because it will cost a lot of money for a company to hire specialists for its EAP program. Agencies that offer EAP services often have an extensive roster composed of experts, ranging from psychologists, financial experts, legal experts, health care specialists, and more.
Companies can outsource to these agencies and tap into this workforce without having to hire the professionals.
Incidentally, EAP is also the term used to refer to the experts in human behavior and psychology. These people provide “strategic analysis, guidance, and consultation throughout the organization to apply the principles of human behavior to enhance organizational performance, culture and business success”. EAP does not only pertain to the plans or the programs, but also to the experts implementing the activities contained within those plans or programs.
BENEFITS OF AN EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PLAN
EAPs are primarily concerned with resolving problems that are affecting the work or job performance of an employee. From that statement alone, we can agree that EAPs benefit the employees first, then the employers or the company second.
If you are an employee going through a rough patch at home or in other aspects of your personal life, you may view the EAP as something that will provide relief. Perhaps you just need a sounding board, or someone to talk to about your problems. An EAP’s counseling services may help get things off your chest, so to speak. These are some of the things that can benefit you as an employee in an EAP.
- Easier access to assistance. You won’t be the only one hesitant to ask for help. Many people don’t easily go out of their way to actively seek help. This may partly be because you are unsure who to approach, how to find him, and how to go about asking for assistance. By having an EAP, that invisible gap will be closed. You will know exactly who to turn to, and the fact that it is somehow closely connected to your work (or the company you work for) will afford you a certain level of comfort and maybe even some assurance that something good will come out of it.
- Confidentiality. This is a big reason why some employees are not too keen on seeking help from colleagues. If you fear that I’m going to tell, you will probably not share anything that you would like to keep secret with me. Many of the personal problems are called “personal” because they can easily result in a lot of ridicule and humiliation when the public knows about them. Through an EAP, you will be able to seek help without worrying that your deepest, darkest secrets will be revealed to the world or, at least, to the other people in the company that you will still be working with in the future. In most EAPs, even the employer is not informed on which employee used which service. It is all kept between you and the one providing the service.
- Assurance of professional assistance. Since EAPs get licensed professionals to conduct the activities within the program, you can be assured that you are getting the best. Let’s say you have a problem at home with the wife. The counselors and psychologists that you will be talking to about these problems will be experts in human behavior. If you are seeking financial or legal advice, you will also feel more at ease knowing you are getting advice from financial or legal experts. As a result, unlike the help available from friends and colleagues, you will only be getting professional advice that is not based on hearsay and unverified personal experiences that are usually exaggerated.
- Least cost to the employee. EAPs are free for employees since they are funded by the employers. Clearly, this is a primary benefit for the employees because they will be getting excellent services without having to worry about the bill. Imagine yourself in need of financial assistance. Paying to get financial advice on how to get back on your feet financially totally defeats the purpose of the assistance. This is probably the reason why many people won’t seek professional financial education.
- Possible extension to family members. Most companies also make it possible so that the benefits of EAPs, which they have prepaid, will also extend to employees’ family members. This means that if you have problems in your marriage, you can bring the wife and talk to a professional counselor in an EAP even if your wife doesn’t work in your company. The best part? You don’t have to pay anything.
In addition to helping your company, the relief, advice, and solutions you will get from the EAP will certainly benefit you personally. No doubt, you will be healthier and happier, and this means you will also be able to work and perform better. Needless to say, that will also have an impact on your earning power, because if you become a better performer at work, you will have greater chances of being promoted, getting a raise, or even being granted a bonus.
Let’s look at the other side of the coin. What if you have a number of people working for you? Is it not fair that you also give the above benefits to them? In addition to being fair to them, as the employer you will also greatly benefit from a well-designed and implemented EAP. This explains the rapid adoption of these programs by employers in all types of companies. As an employer, an EAP will give you the following:
- Sustained profitability. It’s simple, really. Happy employees are productive employees, and productive employees can increase the company’s profitability, which will ultimately contribute to the growth of the business.
- Improved organizational operations. By consulting with EAP providers, managers and supervisors can plan better. It will identify any emergency planning you need to make to address possible problems early. You will also find their input very helpful when you are in the process of improving business processes and operations. You can say that EAP is an excellent planning tool.
- Positive and harmonious working relationship. Many organizations suffer from having members or employees with low self-esteem. If you highly value your workers and employees and you demonstrate this through an EAP (and the employees are made fully aware of the fact), their morale will be high. They will be motivated to work together smoothly toward the attainment of organizational goals. They will even be responsible enough to produce impeccable results with no supervision.
- Improved business reputation. Having an EAP will put your business in good standing within the industry and business community. As a result, there will also be a high level of trust for your company name and its brand, so that other organizations are more willing to collaborate or partner with you. Again, don’t forget: good rep always comes with good business.
Clearly, the benefits of an EAP, for an employee, are more personal. After all, it is your mental, emotional and, all too often, physical well-being on the line. As an employer, you may have a slightly different take on it, since there is that business angle where you will always have to look at the bottomline.
ACTIVITIES IN EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PLANS
Perhaps the most obvious activity or procedure conducted in the implementation of an EAP is counseling. However, this is not the only method that is used to provide assistance to employees in need of help. Let’s take a look at these methods.
Many employees go for short-term counseling when they need help. Instead of paying a professional that bills by the hour (and creating an entirely new problem for you, this time on the financial front), you can opt to get the services of a counselor identified in the company EAP. You won’t have to pay for it, and you can be assured of counseling that’s just as good as what you would have received from the standalone professional.
Counseling is often provided if you are dealing with crisis situations, traumatic experiences, grief, and other difficult times where coping alone just does not seem possible. Examples are marital therapy, family therapy and career counseling.
Consultations and assessments.
Employees in need of confidential assessments will also make use of EAPs, primarily because they are free. If you suddenly find yourself in dire financial straits, you can consult with an EAP expert to get honest opinion and recommendation about how you can fix the mess. During your twilight years as an employee, when you are close to retiring, there may be some aspects that you are not fully aware of. How to make that transition, what retirement will mean for you, what you will be entitled to, and what you expect to happen after you have retired, are the most common topics where you may seek advice during a consultation focused on retirement.
In addition, the consultative role taken on by EAPs is demonstrated when the service providers closely work together with the company owners, managers and supervisors in crafting policies and rules or regulations within the workplace. The inputs that EAP providers can give are deemed to be highly reliable, since they are derived from actual interactions with actual employees who are facing the issues in the workplace before.
Health and wellness programs.
A company may have drawn up weight control plans and programs, starting from setting up an exercise and recreation center within the premises. It may also have mandated the company cafeteria to be more circumspect in designing menus and choosing what food to serve. This nutrition program, as well as the sports program, can also be a part of the EAP. Generally, we can say that providing employees with access to health programs and benefits is already a form of application of EAP.
Providing health-related advice is also another activity often incorporated into EAPs. Let’s say you work in a company but you are suffering from a long-term illness or a disability. Your company could provide access to a professional who will help manage your condition in an EAP. Conducting or sponsoring trainings on health and wellness and health education, in general, is seen as the first step in the health aspect of EAPs.
You may also be concerned about child care and elderly care issues, since those take up much of your time and attention, even when you are at work. Some employee assistance programs incorporate child care services for single parent employees who will need their children watched over during work hours.
Referrals and follow-ups.
You can also count on an EAP when you need referrals for dependent care services, such as when you need someone to help you out in the care of your elderly parents or relatives. In this case, you will need referrals to reputable companies.
In some instances when the existing EAP of the company is not fully equipped to handle your specific woes, they cannot just leave it at that. The most obvious next step is to refer the problem to the proper experts so that you won’t be left hanging. For example, when you are having health issues, you will approach the identified EAP provider of your company.
However, if it turns out that there is no specialist within the EAP agency who is qualified for your specific medical condition, the EAP will refer you for proper diagnosis to another specialist, and also assist you in making follow-ups, if and when necessary.
ISSUES COVERED IN EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PLANS
If you look at EAPs, what are the most common areas or services that are being managed? Let us go over each one of them.
Alcoholism and substance abuse
Alcoholism and addiction to other substances such as stimulants and medications are bound to affect how one functions in his daily life, and that will trickle to how he works. You’ve probably experienced working with other employees who have gone through addiction problems of this sort. Some companies link up with local AA and similar support groups in their area to conduct counseling sessions with employees who need this type of assistance.
Have you ever wondered why it seems as though you are the only one having problems and everyone else seems to be getting by just fine? In contrast, maybe you have noticed a co-worker who is visibly downcast and has been called out on his poor performance more than a few times.
Fact: everyone has personal issues of their own; it’s just that others deal with them better than the rest. Here are some of the common personal issues handled in EAPs.
Marital spats and family disagreements are seen as the most common personal relationship problems experienced by employees. And it is not just limited to married employees, since we have seen employees lagging behind in their work because they just had a major blow-out with the person they are dating. “Matters of the heart” are a tricky thing, and you’ve probably gone through these stages more than once or twice. Admittedly, some of these “matters” can be so heavy that they weigh you down, and affect your work. For these, you may seek some advice on how to handle your relationship issues.
Domestic violence is another, even more serious, personal issue that is bound to have an effect on productivity. If you are the one on the receiving end of domestic abuse and violence, the most likely results include absenteeism, the physical inability to perform even the simplest task of your job, and also the corresponding emotional trauma piled on top of the physical trauma that you are trying to recover from.
This is a very sore subject for many, and many cases go unreported because of the shame felt by most victims. They do not want their co-workers and their bosses to find out that they are victims of abuse at home, and so they keep quiet. If you happen to be one of these people, check the EAP of your company. You might get the help you need from it.
Are you suddenly having trouble balancing work and family? This is commonly seen if you are an employee with a rapid rise up the ranks. As you are promoted to a higher position within the company, this comes attached with more responsibilities. You end up spending more hours at work, resulting to a corresponding reduction of the time you spend with your family. Soon, you will realize that you spend more time at the office than at home, and you rarely see your kids, much less have a complete meal with them. It becomes a bigger problem when this distance widens so much that a strain in the relationship with your family becomes bigger.
EAP can help you gain enlightenment and guidance on how you can still strike a balance between your work life and family life, so you can still be a powerhouse at work and a good father or mother to your children, and a good son or daughter to your parents.
Although many work-related problems have their respective solutions at work, there are some problems that cannot be solved solely by a company policy or directive.
All employees have their saturation point; you know, that point where you feel like you’ve had enough, and they can no longer do any more. Or that time when you feel like a work robot, doing the same thing over and over again every single day to the extent that you end up utterly bored and completely unmotivated.
Occupational stress is often experienced due to any of the following:
- Increased workload, maybe due to downsizing of workforce, and higher demand for product or service.
- Longer work hours, where you have to work overtime in order to meet deadlines.
- Erratic work schedule, especially if you happen to work in shifts or rotating schedules
- Limited or no control over the job, including instances where you have to work with very little resources provided to him
- Lack of job security, such as when the company is contemplating downsizing or freezing promotions, or when there is no career ladder or upward career path that can be seen in the structure
Hostility in any working environment is definitely a cause for concern. Not only does this affect how people work together to come up with outputs, but it will also negatively affect your psyche.
At first, you probably don’t even notice that something is wrong. Gradually, you’ll feel a growing strain in your relationship with co-workers. You start to sense awkwardness in how you interact with others, and you no longer feel as comfortable as before in the company. Self-doubt will set in or, worse, depression. This may lead to an entire host of other, more serious, psychological issues. Examples of strained working relationships include having over-controlling supervisors, envious peers, gossiping co-workers, and disrespectful subordinates.
Emotional stress and similar problems are also rampant in the workplace, and these can be caused by a lot of things. However, it becomes a bigger problem when even you, the employee, have trouble trying to pinpoint the exact reason for the distress you are feeling. Some examples of distress where EAP may help include:
- Depression and anxiety, even leading to suicidal behavior
- Lack of motivation and an inexplicable sense of loss of purpose
- Inability to handle grief, loss or separation
Workplace emergency situations
Some EAP service providers are also known to focus on helping organizations in the management and prevention of traumatic events and other emergency response situations.
- Harassment. Workplace intimidation is a form of harassment. If you are feeling threatened by the words, gestures or body language of co-workers and sometimes even your bosses, this is bound to put you on the edge the whole time. You may seek help through the company EAP.
- Violence. Workplace violence is taking intimidation and threatening behavior to a physical level. Actually, when it reaches this point, the act already constitutes a crime. Many agencies that provide EAP services specialize in guiding companies and organizations to deal with these situations, and prevent them from happening again.
- Workplace hazards. Even if the cause of injury or harm to you may have been unintentional, it can still take a toll on you and render you unable to work at your peak performance. An unsafe working environment can be a reason for you to seek EAP services.
Legal and financial issues
Sometimes, employees need legal and financial advice, and EAPs can also include these. Financial advice covers everything from long term investment decisions to day to day activities like budgeting and expense tracking. You also need to think about retirement. Without proper financial education, it’s easy to find yourself in a financial crisis that could also lead to other problems like depression.
Companies arm their employees with relevant information by organizing lectures and seminars and sometimes even having in-house financial planners. Most companies also have some sort of financial management training as part of the retirement package to help retirees adjust to the new life.
Have you tried taking out a loan or any financial assistance, and the company helped you in deciding which loan to take, explaining the pros and cons of each, letting you know which is most suitable for your current situation? That may also be another EAP initiative, and you just had no idea that you were already enjoying the benefits of the program.
In the same vein, if you are in the middle of a legal dispute, you can also take advantage of the EAP to seek legal advice. When legal aid is obtained outside, on your own, you can expect to be charged for the billable hours by the lawyers whose services you will choose. At least, through the EAP, legal advice can be obtained for free, even if it is during the initial stages only. If you’re lucky, your company is more generous than others, the legal team may even help you through the next steps of the legal war you are currently waging.
Health and fitness issues
Job and personal stressors can lead to strain, which is manifested through various health issues. You may have suffered through times when your blood pressure went through the roof, or you’ve been experiencing chronic headaches frequently and for prolonged periods. If you’re not careful, these may even lead to more serious health problems. The stress may also cause difficulties in sleeping.
Developing insomnia and other sleeping disorders is no longer a strange concept among employees, especially in highly demanding positions and industries. Doctors, nutritionists, physical therapists and trainers are usually involved in this area of an EAP, and they will be the ones to help you out when you decide to take advantage of the EAP to cause a positive change in your health and wellness.