4 strategies to fix ‘broken’ EAP programs

Although more than 90% of employers offer employee assistance programs, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, experts say employees have underused them for decades. Even as employee wellness concerns have skyrocketed following the pandemic, the percentage of workers relying on EAPs has remained at just 5%- 10% since the early 1980s, according to the foundation and other experts.

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That’s well below the 20% use rate HR would be “thrilled” to see or the 50% rate that would send employers “over the moon,” says Julie Stich, vice president of content for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Several factors—including access challenges, misunderstandings about the scope and purpose of EAPs, and confidentiality concerns—explain why more employees don’t turn to EAPs. But HR typically spends $10 to $100 per employee on such programs every year, depending on the program’s structure—which could be money wasted if employees aren’t taking advantage of the offering.

EAPs done right, however, can ultimately boost employee wellness, drive organizational productivity and engagement, and improve ROI. For example, in a 2023 report by Attridge Consulting—which reviewed U.S. government data about over 72 million workers with access to employee assistance programs as part of their benefits—researchers found that 60% of employees reported problems with being present and productive at work. This figure dropped to 34% after EAP-provided counseling.

Landscape shifting—again

Julie Stich, International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans
Julie Stich, International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans

EAPs were originally conceived in the 1940s to help employees tackle alcoholism. By the 1970s, these programs expanded to combat drug addiction and support mental health and employees’ family members. Over the past decade, Stich says, EAPs have again extended their scope with the addition of legal, financial, childcare, and eldercare support, as well as guidance for managers on navigating employee conflicts.

Despite the increase in professional services added to employee assistance programs, their structure largely remains the same: EAPs are designed to give employees and their families access to providers who can help them stabilize their immediate crisis with a limited number of treatments, therapy sessions or consultations. The program is not intended for ongoing support, compared to mental health benefits offered through an employer’s health plan.

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“We hear a lot of corporations say, ‘We’ve got it covered. We offer health insurance and an EAP for our employees,'” says Haeli Harris, a marriage and family therapist and also a director of clinical operations at employee mental health platform provider Nivati. Harris will present a session titled “Preparing managers to talk about mental health” at HRE’s upcoming Evaluate People, Ignite Change (EPIC) conference in Las Vegas. “That’s actually very discouraging, because I don’t think companies are really looking at how we really help our employees.”

Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris, Nivati

According to the Attridge report, roughly 5%-15% of all EAP counseling cases have individuals who need a long-term care approach.

Although EAPs are not meant to offer long-term support, employees can benefit from the free employer-sponsored access to mental health providers, lawyers, financial consultants and other professional services. The vast majority of these services are currently provided by external EAP providers that employers directly pay or through employers’ health plan providers that contract with these third-party vendors. With internal EAPs, organizations will employ providers to cover EAP services. 

Telecom giant AT&T recently moved away from its EAP program and instead selected mental health benefits platform provider Lyra Health to integrate into its main healthcare plan, reports Fortune magazine. Like a traditional EAP added to a health plan, with Lyra, insured AT&T employees have access to a set number of counseling sessions per issue treated. However, there is no limit on the number of issues an employee can be treated for.

4 strategies to improve the use of EAP programs

Some mental health providers like Harris characterize EAPs as “broken.” Other experts like Stich do not necessarily consider them broken but note the low utilization rate is a problem. A primary challenge that may deter employees from turning to an EAP includes misunderstanding the program’s purpose. For example, many employees believe EAPs are primarily for treating alcoholism or drug addiction, Stich says. Other employees may question the confidentiality of the program, especially if a company uses an internal EAP. And perhaps the greatest driver of the low adoption rate is a lack of awareness of what supportive services are available with an EAP, experts say.

Here are four strategies employers can use to counter those challenges and improve the use rate of their EAPs.

Rebrand your EAP

Telecommunications giant T-Mobile rebranded its EAP as LiveMagenta in 2017, and the number of employees and family members who accessed the program’s resources nearly doubled in its first year, according to the company. As part of the rebrand, all references to “EAP” were stripped from T-Mobile’s printed and online materials about the program, and EAP counselors were reclassified as coaches. The goal of the rebrand was to remove the negative stigma around contacting an EAP for help, Stich says.

Identify an EAP advocate

Find an employee whom colleagues trust and can champion the benefits of the EAP, Stich advises, and enlist them as an advocate. “It can be someone in management, leadership or even a peer who can talk about how the EAP has helped them. Maybe they used the EAP to find an assisted living arrangement for their mother or some other issue,” Stich says.

Recruit managers to issue EAP reminders

Employees often do not think of their organization’s EAP resources when they are in a crisis. But managers who are aware an employee is struggling can direct them to EAP resources during this critical time, Stich says. HR can also prompt managers to issue EAP reminders.

Try new models for EAPs

New models for EAPs are emerging, and they may help improve their usefulness for employees. Some of these include digital services where employees can get faster access to mental health providers via teletherapy sessions or online, self-guided sessions with videos and educational content, Stich says. By speeding up and expanding access, employees can tap into timely care. “If it takes too long for someone to get a referral, they may not come back for help,” Stich warns.

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.