How to destigmatise employee assistance programmes

21 December 2016 -


Many people could find comfort in employee assistance programmes over Christmas and new year, if only companies and managers positioned them properly

Guest blogger Professor Sir Cary Cooper

What’s the Employee Assistance Programme for? It seems to be there as the fallback service, a good way to avoid those difficult conversations about personal problems, divorce and debt and mental health.

But that’s not right. It might well be the missing link in helping organisations improve performance and productivity among staff left dazed by growing pressures.

It’s an issue highlighted by a new report by Lancaster University’s The Work Foundation. Just 9% of HR manager respondents involved with the research into the use of EAPs had attempted to evaluate their EAP in terms of a cost utility benefit or return on investment via the impact on sickness absence, productivity, performance or engagement. 31% admitted there had been no attempt to evaluate the quality or impact of the EAP and 9% didn’t know whether there was any evaluation.

In the study, HR managers also pointed to an ongoing stigma associated with the EAP, as a counselling service primarily for staff with mental health issues.

The evidence is there to support the idea that EAPs work in helping reduce sickness absence and the kinds of mental health problems that lead to presenteeism and a workplace malaise, but managers should be thinking differently about the bigger role for EAPs - not as a token HR service - but how they can help tackle fundamental cultural issues.

That means:

Re-thinking when line reports should be using the services available 

It shouldn’t be the last resort, but a more natural source of support around everyday concerns at home and in work: so managing finances as well as who to better deal with relationship issues at work, give up smoking, how to overcome periods of stress and generally stay feeling healthy and positive;

Playing a more active role in promotion and in positioning what the EAP actually is

Ensure people know that the service is there primarily for prevention, as a way of avoiding situations that can spiral into far more serious problems. Think about the language used about the EAP, and be clear it’s not only about counselling;

Start measuring the impact 

There’s more scope for demonstrating how your use of the service is saving the business money - just simply in terms of calculating the numbers of cases referred, the potential for absence, and the savings from what was avoided;

Make the EAP part of a virtuous circle

Integrate the service into wider health and wellbeing strategies.

Although EAPs are already successfully helping individuals to cope, they need to proactively support the organisation, whether it’s tackling a culture of long hours, the glass ceiling or a hotspot of bullying and harassment, and give employers the data, resources and support to bring down these barriers to performance and productivity.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE CCMI, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, President of the CIPD and Honorary Member of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

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