As businesses search for opportunities to trim their budgets, employee benefits will typically be the first to feel the ax, from workplace wellness initiatives to employee assistance programs (EAPs). In this economic climate, everything needs a solid business case, and making that case for an EAP can be crucial to closing the deal. Sometimes, to get the right answer, you have to reframe the question — and the beliefs that companies have about EAPs.

Let’s follow a business-case approach, then, stating the challenge, solutions, resource requirements, and measurement criteria.

The challenge: Maximize employee productivity
This is your “foot in the door.” Right away, eliminate any defense that companies might raise about EAPs being a fringe or “extra” benefit. Every business wants productive employees, no matter the economic environment. The most important thing to know about employee assistance programs is that they have a positive impact on the bottom line.

You may have to help your clients overcome some outdated impressions of EAPs, which were first launched in the 1980s as a place to refer employees who had substance abuse problems and needed to seek treatment. But EAPs have changed with the times.

Research has uncovered a number of root causes of lost workplace productivity:

  • According to a study by the National Mental Health Association, “presenteeism” — showing up for work but being less productive — costs more than $200 billion annually in the United States. For a business, this might mean giving up 5 percent to 12 percent of its workforce’s productivity each day.
  • Depression and anxiety are among the top five reasons for absenteeism and presenteeism, according to research published in the April 2009 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This applies to management as well as line workers, and represents a significant drain on a company’s productivity.
  • Stressors such as family issues and financial, credit, and legal problems can detract from employees’ valuable time, attention, and energy even when they’re at work.

The solution: A multi-faceted approach to boosting productivity
While supervisors may be able to spot troubled employees, it’s unlikely that they or a human resources staffer would feel comfortable making such a direct suggestion as, “Get yourself into counseling.”

While many health plans do cover counseling, a depressed person often struggles with even the simplest of tasks, and they may have difficulty identifying the problem, let along finding a provider. In addition, copayments or limited visits can hinder employee access.

There can be many non-medical reasons for presenteeism and absenteeism, as well, such as family-related or financial issues — issues that a health plan won’t address.

Resource requirements
The goal of a good EAP is to equip businesses with the tools required to resolve any problems affecting productivity. Today’s EAPs offer a wide range of services that can be accessed with a simple phone call. There is also no upfront cost sharing, removing yet another barrier to assistance.

EAPs target the very issues that can lead to depression and anxiety:

  • A referral to reputable mental health assistance that can resolve certain issues in as few as four sessions (this also helps meet federal mental health parity requirements)
  • Family and marriage or couples counseling, which is often not covered by health plan-provided mental health benefits
  • Financial planning, debt counseling, and guidance in creating and implementing a formal household budget
  • Legal assistance for basic functions, such as creating a simple will
  • Connecting workers to community resources, such as child or elder care

Of particular assistance to some businesses are the work-related services, such as:

  • Supervisor consultations to help build action plans and walk the supervisor through handling new or complicated employee situations, from incompatible employees to workforce reductions
  • On-site trainings for staff development such as stress management, customer service, and other types of skill-building training
  • On-site critical incident stress management

Measurement criteria
To clinch the sale, it’s important to show that the benefits of EAPs are measurable. These measures can be used to select an effective EAP and to gauge its performance and return on investment.

One study for a third-party EAP covering more than 11,000 employees across various companies found a return on investment of $1.42 for those reporting depression.

And the outcomes from a Federal Occupational Health study of more than 60,000 workers using EAP services measure both objective and subjective data:

  • Unplanned absences and tardiness from work decreased by an average of 1.5 days per case
  • Employees’ clinical functioning rose by an average of 10 percent, according to counselors’ reports
  • People who reported a great amount of difficulty completing their daily work because of emotional problems showed a 73 percent productivity improvement rate after using EAP services

Economic convergence
The same economic climate that leads businesses to cut costs can cause their employees unprecedented stress that can hurt their productivity at work. Among one health plan’s 100,000 members that were served by an EAP, more than 14 percent used the program’s services in 2008, a number well above the traditional industry average of roughly 7 percent.

The use of EAP-provided legal, debt management, counseling, and family/parenting support has increased by up to 27 percent; employees are also more frequently seeking help for real estate law, estate planning, student loans, credit reports, and tax issues.

Research on productivity and ROI make a clear business case that companies see a payoff from investing in an effective employee assistance program. EAPs are an effective solution to keep personal problems from becoming personnel issues that divert time and energy from the workplace.

These are sound selling points in any economy.

Chris Smith is the EAP product manager for Regence BlueCross BlueShield. He can be reached at chrissmith@regence.com.

A Well-Stocked EAP Plan
When helping your clients choose an EAP plan, here are some common services and features you should look for.
Services for the individual Services for the company
  • 24-hour crisis telephone hotline
  • Confidential assessment and counseling services
  • Referral support, tracking, and followup
  • Emergency intervention/critical incident stress management
  • Substance abuse expertise
  • Access to qualified employee assistance clinical providers, ideally those holding the Certified Employee Assistance Professional credential
  • Dependent and domestic partner coverage
  • Guaranteed confidential recordkeeping
  • EAP orientation for all employees
  • Supervisory-leadership training
  • EAP communication/awareness materials
  • EAP policy development and coordination
  • Labor coordination
  • Management communication and consultation
  • Annual and periodic utilization reports
  • EAP evaluation
  • Client/company satisfaction evaluation
Source: Employee Assistance Professionals Association