Employee assistance programs (EAPs) function to treat a variety of work- and nonwork-related problems that may interfere with an employee’s job performance and/or productivity. EAPs were originally developed in the 1950s to treat employees whose job performance was negatively affected by alcohol abuse, but they have evolved greatly over the past several decades. The scope of the problems addressed by EAPs varies from plan to plan, with some plans covering only issues closely related to work stress and others covering a much broader range of work-life and mental health issues. Some plans offer services solely to employees, and other plans also cover treatment of family members. Although counseling is still the focus of most EAPs, a few progressive plans include financial and legal advice and resources to assist in locating child care or elder care programs. As a result of receiving assistance with these work-life issues, an employee may find that he or she has an increase in time and energy to focus on being productive at work.
Whether offering concrete advice or providing counseling, EAPs strive to address the personal problems of employees so that they can function to their full capacities in both their work and their home lives. EAP counseling services may be provided on-site by an in-house provider or off-site by an external contracted provider. EAPs offer a certain number of sessions (determined by the plan) to the employee. Typically, if an employee’s issues cannot be resolved in the allotted number of sessions, the EAP counselor refers the employee to a counselor through the employee’s health plan for continued service.
A growing number of worksites in the United States now offer EAPs to their employees. Most of these are large companies: 100 percent of Fortune 500 companies have EAPs, and 90 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have them. In 2001, 28 percent of companies with 1 to 24 employees and 86.3 percent of companies with 500 or more employees had EAPs, compared with 22.4 percent of small companies and 73.9 percent of large companies in 1993. These statistics not only show the growth in the number of companies with EAPs but also highlight the vast difference in prevalence of EAPs between large and small companies. This may be due in part to the cost involved in offering EAP services.
Despite the cost of maintaining these programs, many companies find that EAPs are mutually beneficial to the company and the employees. Using EAPs, employees are able to benefit from free (or low-cost) services they otherwise may not have chosen to utilize. Employers who offer EAPs send the message to their employees that they care. Employees may feel an increased sense of investment in their companies because they feel that their companies are invested in them. This sense of feeling “cared for” can greatly increase morale in an organization.
It would be neglectful to discuss EAPs without mention of the role of stress in today’s society. Stress has become quite common and almost expected in many work environments. Employees work long hours and often feel overwhelmingly pressured to be productive. This, coupled with increasing demands in their personal lives, may leave employees feeling frustrated, anxious, or depressed. Without the appropriate skills to manage these symptoms, people may experience a variety of manifestations of their stress, including physical illness, substance abuse, and marital problems. EAP counseling can provide employees with the skills to cope with stress in both their work and their personal lives. As a result, they can enjoy improved functioning in both arenas.
Clearly, having employees who are efficient at managing their stress is not only a benefit to the employees. Many managers feel that their departments run more smoothly as a result of their EAPs. They feel that it makes good financial sense to support their employees.
One expected result of an EAP is reduced absenteeism. Depression is a leading cause of missed workdays, and undoubtedly, stress-related medical conditions contribute to absenteeism as well. Furthermore, disability claims caused by depression and stress-related illnesses are costly to an organization and may be avoided by addressing these issues before they become debilitating. Studies have shown that substance abusers are more likely to become injured on the job and are more likely than their non-substance-abusing counterparts to file workers’ compensation claims. EAPs can even lower health care costs, as they may result in fewer claims being filed. In addition, a company invested in helping its troubled employees realize their full potential will avoid the time-consuming and costly process of hiring and training staff to replace those who would otherwise be terminated.
Theoretically, an EAP sounds as if it would be an asset to any company, but is it really worth the cost? It is first important to note that for an EAP to be effective, it must be utilized by the employees. Employees need to know about it and how to access it. It should be marketed as a useful and substantial benefit. It should also be marketed in such a way that employees do not view accessing these services as a sign of weakness. Employees must feel confident that information discussed with EAP counselors will be kept confidential.
There is not a wealth of information regarding the actual effectiveness of EAPs, and the existing studies show inconsistent results. Self-reports of people who have used their EAPs indicate a high level of satisfaction with the services they received. Other studies note improvements in job performance and attendance as a result of EAPs. Conversely, some studies do not promote EAPs as a valuable commodity. As far as the actual cost-effectiveness of these types of programs is concerned, the numbers vary greatly. Different studies have shown that for every dollar spent on an EAP, the return is as little as $2 or as much as $15. Other studies have found EAPs not to be cost-effective at all. Many employers believe that regardless of the dollar-for-dollar return (or lack thereof), EAPs are worthwhile investments. The improvement in morale and productivity among the employees and the generally positive work environment that an EAP achieves are well worth the cost of the program.
- Berridge, J. R. and Cooper, C. L. 1994. “The Employee Assistance Programme—Its Role in Organizational Coping and Excellence.” Personnel Review 23(7):4-20.
- Cooper, C. L., Dewe, P. and O’Driscoll, M. 2003. “Employee Assistance Programs.” Pp. 289-304 in Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology, edited by J. C. Quick and L. E. Tetrick. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Hartwell, T. D., Steele, P., French, M. T., Potter, F. J., Rodman, N. F. and Zarkin, G. A. 1996. “Aiding Troubled Employees: The Prevalence, Cost, and Characteristics of Employee Assistance Programs in the United States.” American Journal of Public Health 86(6):804-808.