Employees are facing many challenges, including family issues, financial concerns, relationship problems — and even mental illness or substance abuse issues. These challenges have a direct impact on the happiness of employees and a company’s bottom line.

Employee assistance program (EAP) counseling is designed to help employees manage personal and workplace challenges. Many companies already have EAPs in place, and, according to the International Employee Assistance Professional Association:

  • Over 95% of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs.
  • Eighty percent of companies with 1,001 to 5,000 employees have EAPs.
  • Seventy-five percent of companies with 251 to 1,000 employees have EAPs.

Companies with EAPs, however, aren’t always consistent about communicating the program benefits to employees, so they have questions. How does EAP counseling work? Is it confidential? Will my employer know that I’m struggling with substance abuse? Understanding EAP counseling and how it works can assist with more effectively communicating program details, increasing employee usage and creating more positive outcomes.

EAP counseling — what problems does it help with?

Employees might consider EAPs a resource for substance abuse challenges or mental health issues; however, EAPs are actually more suited to help people solve common problems quickly, so they can get on with their normal lives. Stress, for example, is a common reason employees reach out to EAPs for help. Common workplace stressors include the following:

  • Fear of being laid off or changes at work
  • Demand for increased overtime hours
  • Pressure to perform and meet rising job expectations with little or no increase in job satisfaction
  • Pressure to work at high levels all the time
  • Lack of control over how an employee performs work
  • Work-life balance

Excessive workplace stress is a major challenge for employees and a contributor to employee health challenges. This challenge causes nearly 120,000 deaths each year and results in $190 billion in health care costs annually, according to the American Psychiatric Association. What’s more, workplace stress is reported to have risen by 20% in the past three decades. Employees with access to EAP counselors can reach out and get immediate help for problems that are causing them worry.

The services provided by an EAP also extend much further than workplace stress and can assist with a variety of situations, including the following.

Workplace personality conflicts. Estimates suggest that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with workplace conflict. This adds up to about $359 billion in paid hours, or the equivalent of 385 million working days. Employees can reach out to EAP counselors and get expert guidance on how to handle workplace conflicts, saving the employee stress and the company money.

Drug and alcohol addiction. Twenty-one million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment. Estimates suggest that alcohol and drug addiction costs the U.S. economy about $600 billion annually. There are EAP counselors who are trained specifically in addiction challenges and can get employees in touch with the resources required to start on the path of recovery.

Mental health issues. Approximately one in five adults in the U.S., which is 18.5% of the population, experiences a mental health illness each year. Mental health and substance abuse cost U.S. businesses between $80 and $100 billion annually. Estimates suggest that depression accounts for approximately 400 million lost workdays annually. The benefit of an EAP is that employees can reach out to counselors early, before longer-term care is needed, and get on the road to recovery more quickly.

Challenges of caregiving. Employees may have large responsibilities outside work, such as caring for a sick family member. For example, an employee might have an ill parent with a condition that recently took a bad turn. EAP counselors are available to help the employee cope with this stress and put the right resources in place to make day-to-day life more manageable.

Legal and family advice. Employees have difficulty concentrating at work when things at home are in turmoil. An employee might be dealing with a divorce or a pending custody issue that is consuming all their energy and increasing their anxiety and worry. Employees can get in touch with the EAP and get access to legal and family advice to start getting these problems resolved.

Grief assistance. Employees might be dealing with various types of grief, such as the death of a loved one, a traumatic event or an emotional reaction to a change in their personal circumstances. An EAP provider can connect employees with a grief counselor who understands their challenges and gets them started with the healing process.

Left untreated, these types of challenges can seriously impact an employee’s health and well-being and also his or her job performance. Poor concentration, missed days of work and decreased customer service all can be attributed to dealing with personal issues. The EAP is designed to learn about the employee’s unique problem and then put the person in touch with the right counselor to get it resolved — helping the employee stay on the job and remain productive.

How does EAP counseling work?

Most EAPs offer a set number of counseling sessions. For example, an employee might be struggling with grief due to the recent death of a spouse. The employee has missed many days of work and has difficulty functioning at his job. The EAP can connect the employee with a grief counselor who is an expert at helping people heal after difficult life events and get him on the path to recovery.

In another situation, an employee might be struggling to handle workplace stress. This challenge is very common, with the World Health Organization calling stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” Nearly half of all workers struggle with moderate to severe stress while on the job, and 66% of employees report they have difficulty focusing on tasks at work because of this stress.

The first step for getting help for any issue, including stress, is for the employee to contact the EAP. At this point, there is usually a “triage” process in place, where the EAP learns more about the problem and puts the employee in touch with the right counselor. The EAP counselor provides short-term treatment and recommends additional resources and counseling if required.

Types of EAP counseling

As technology progresses, so do the delivery methods of EAP counseling. In the past, most of this counseling might have been conducted in a face-to-face setting. Today, e-counseling solutions allow employees to tap into these services through teleconferencing or video conferencing, which increases flexibility and decreases worry.

Younger employees may be drawn to these types of counseling sessions because of their love of technology. This also provides an attractive option for the employee who is worried about the time required to get help. For example, a single mom may be dealing with depression and have a limited number of hours to work, take care of her children and handle other responsibilities. The thought of attending regular counseling sessions only increases her stress and avoidance of seeking help. Having access to an EAP counseling session through a video chat makes getting help easier. She can attend the session on her lunch hour without committing to taking an entire afternoon off work or finding childcare in the evening in order to attend.

The method in which EAP counseling is delivered can help employees overcome difficult barriers that stand between them and getting help. Sometimes employees are also worried about “being seen” when attending an in-person meeting. For example, what if a neighbor sees them going into the counseling office? Or what happens if a co-worker is getting dinner at an adjacent restaurant and sees the employee? Confidentiality is a big concern for employees struggling with sensitive personal issues, and for many employees, the delivery method of counseling is a major factor in determining whether they seek help.

EAP counseling and confidentially concerns

Employees are hesitant to reach out for help for many reasons, including the fear of losing their job. For example, imagine an employee who is struggling with serious depression. The workload in her department recently increased, which is only adding to her anxiety and difficulty. Getting up in the morning is hard, and she often can’t make it out the door and calls in sick. Worried about losing her job due to the absences caused by the depression, her stress and anxiety only get worse, creating a powerful cycle. The employee wants help but is worried that people will find out about her struggles, she will be judged and, even worse, she might lose her job.

Employees need reassurance that EAPs are totally confidential. If an employee reaches out to get help for work-related problems or other issues, the company will have no idea what is going on with the employee. Employees need to understand they don’t have to ask permission to use the program, go through HR channels or do anything except get in touch with the EAP and make an appointment.

Workers also need to understand the financial benefits of using the EAP. Depending on the program details, there are typically a few sessions available at no cost to the employee. Sometimes this is enough to get the employee on the right path, but sometimes the employee needs more. The employee can pay out of pocket for the additional sessions, but those first sessions are at no cost.

Additional services that may not be covered under the employee’s health plan may be available at no cost through the EAP. For instance, a health plan might not cover marriage counseling, but an employee can usually access these services, up the number of sessions allowed, at no cost under the EAP.

Educating employees for optimal health

Employees starting a new job receive many details about benefits. They might read the information about EAP benefits but quickly forget the details or lose the leaflet and forget about the program.

Offering the EAP is the first step, but then companies need to continually promote that program to employees. This continuous promotion plants the seed so when something happens in the employee’s life, he or she knows where to get help — and, it’s hoped, get that help sooner.

For example, the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that EAP providers visit companies regularly and conduct brown-bag lunches on popular topics. Managing conflict in the workplace or managing workplace stress are both helpful topics. Other potential ideas include dealing with pet loss, stopping smoking, coping with depression and managing the death of a loved one.

Including details through the corporate communication channels such as employee newsletters and emails is also an effective way to keep EAP counseling resources front and center. Human resources teams can continually work to better understand what types of issues employees are struggling with in order to provide them with customized resources. For example, when one company learned that many employees were struggling with financial challenges, it had EAP counselors present a brown-bag lunch on financial health to provide some additional resources and remind employees that the EAP is there to help with their specific problems on a one-on-one basis.

Employers should consider partnering with an EAP vendor that supports behavioral health needs beyond bump-in-the-road issues. Uprise Health (formerly IBH Solutions), for example, offers a suite of resources to support workplaces in addressing the variety of behavioral health issues faced by their employees. From managing co-morbid mental health and physical health conditions to helping supervisors develop stronger resilience skills, a well-rounded behavioral health partner can help employers leverage their EAP and draw from other important programs to keep their employees healthy, safe, and productive.

Moving forward with better health

EAP services provide employees with the tools they need to manage stress and other personal issues that could affect workplace performance. The cost is well worth it, with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting that for every dollar invested in an EAP, employers generally save $5 to $16. Employers benefit from potential improvement in lost productivity and even reduced worker’s compensation and turnover issues.

This type of counseling is a benefit that most employees would appreciate, but many don’t realize that it’s available — so the key is to keep it in front of employees. Workers who are aware of this program are more likely to reach out when something hard happens in their lives, so they get the required help sooner. The results are happier employees, more productive work environments and greater long-term success for the company.