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Employee Assistance Plans and Employee Well-Being

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What You Need to Know

  • One in three workers who've returned to the office say their mental health has suffered.
  • Almost half of business owners are getting more questions about mental health and employee well-being resources.
  • This issue may affect owners of some small businesses as much as it affects some of the corporate giants.

The mental health challenges employers have tried to address over the past year are far from solved, and new studies show feelings of burnout could be exacerbated by a return to the office.

According to a recent McKinsey study, roughly one in three workers back in the workplace said the return-to-office shift negatively impacted their mental health. And almost half of those who have not yet returned anticipate negative mental health impacts. That’s driving higher demand from employees for well-being resources.

In fact, research from Principal shows nearly half (47%) of business owners continue to see an increase in questions about mental health and well-being resources available to employees. That’s prompting many companies to wonder how they can best support employees through this period of transition.

A Solution Right in Front of Employers

For the 34% of businesses with access to an employee assistance program (EAP), these offerings are a tangible way to help those who have concerns affecting their well-being, including the anxiety of returning to the office.

Despite the pandemic, EAPs are quite unfamiliar to many employees. Here are three ways companies can encourage EAP use:

1. Reinforce the idea that no issue is too small.

Some employees may think these services are only for big concerns, such as substance abuse or a diagnosed mental or physical illness. They don’t think about general issues such as fears about safely returning to the workplace, work/life balance, or nutrition and physical fitness. Communicating about the program and what it can be used for is key.

2. Stress confidentiality.

One in four adults with a mental illness report an unmet need for treatment, a number that hasn’t decreased since 2011. While progress has been made to destigmatize mental health, perception remains a barrier. At work, a cause for concern among employees may be a lack of trust in the protection of confidential information. Communication to employees about confidentiality and reinforcing it’s ok to seek help may help boost the use of an EAP.

3. Highlight how EAPs can help employees help others.

A Principal employee recently shared a blog about how she used our EAP to help her sister. She’d been on a journey supporting her sister’s mental health and had run out of ways to help. The desire to continue supporting her sister is what prompted this employee to reach out. An EAP counselor helped her find additional support for sister. This eventually led to finding her own support, a step she might not have otherwise taken. Each EAP has its own stipulations, but for many, the benefits are available to household members, another important item to communicate to employees if available.

Smaller Businesses need more well-being offerings to compete.

Nearly a third (31%) of businesses surveyed by Principal said they plan to increase mental health benefits offerings. But without more guidance and encouragement, smaller businesses may miss out on good talent due to a lack of mental health offerings.

Principal research found larger businesses (those with more than 500 employees) are twice as likely to offer access to an EAP. Only one in four smaller businesses are likely to offer it, compared to half of larger businesses. Same goes for mental health coverage through an employer-sponsored health insurance plan, supplemental mental health insurance, and internal programs promoting employee mental health and well-being.

If you’re working with a small business who doesn’t have the means to invest extensively in mental health and well-being benefits, consider these options:

• Stay informed of value-added services.

Some companies that employers already work with may offer additional services. For example, Principal just extended an emotional health support line to all group benefits clients at no additional charge. This means any employees covered by our group benefits solutions now have access to a free, confidential support line to reach licensed behavioral health clinicians.

• Ask employees what well-being support looks like for them.

In a recent Principal study, employers shared examples of what well-being benefits look like. The list included items such as: more paid time off to spend with family, paid wellness and mental break days, a space for quiet time and breaks in the workplace, and better wellness and gym membership reimbursements. There’s no one right answer when it comes to how best to support employees, so be sure to ask on an ongoing basis what is most valuable to the employees.

As the benefits landscape shifts, employers need the expertise of financial professionals to guide them in understanding the options available, what choices make sense for particular situations, and when best to make changes. In looking for that trusted financial professional, research shows that while the cost of services has risen in importance, expertise is still the top criteria when it comes to what employers are looking for in a financial professional.

The bottom line is that supporting mental health may add to the bottom line. More than 80% of employees treated for mental illness report they’re more satisfied and efficient. It also prompts lower medical costs, lower absenteeism, and increased productivity. To stay competitive in today’s tight labor market, businesses of all sizes — but especially smaller businesses — need to evaluate how they will support employee mental health and well-being.

(Adobe Stock)


Kara Hoogensen (Photo: Principal) Kara Hoogensen, CIMA, CEBS, is senior vice president for specialty benefits at Principal Financial Group.