As today’s multi generational workforce expects the organizations they work for to provide certain health and wellness initiatives, it’s no surprise that more Canadian companies (63%) are investing, or planning to invest, in employee well-being for the short and long term.
While 30% of those companies will be prioritizing mental health and wellness programs, others cite digital wellness services like telemedicine (28%) and financial wellness programs (14%) as their key areas of focus1.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a great way for HR and business leaders to address a variety of wellness needs through a single employee benefit.
Often part of a larger corporate wellness plan, an EAP is a benefit program funded and implemented by employers or plan sponsors to help their employees or members navigate personal and work-related difficulties.
Most EAPs - also known as EFAPs (employee and family assistance programs), MAPs (member assistance programs), or SAPs (student assistance programs) - provide access to short term clinical or professional consultations, health risk assessments, or other worklife (legal, financial, etc.) and wellness support services.
Through these services, challenges arising inside or outside the workplace that might otherwise risk an employee’s health, well-being, or job performance can be better understood, managed, and often resolved.
In their 2020 Canada Healthcare Survey, Sanofi Canada found that 86% of employees agree that a workplace environment that encourages health and wellness is an important factor when deciding on a job offer or remaining with an organization. A full 90%, meanwhile, claim to be satisfied with their jobs when their workplace has a wellness culture - compared with the 61% who claim otherwise when a wellness culture is lacking.
In the current EAP market, different EAPs offer different services, but most are designed to
provide free access to counselling or support in one or more distinct areas:
(some 70-80% of EAP usage is mental health related2)
(may include child or elder care support)
(39% of employees cite personal finances as their largest source of daily stress3)
EAP providers typically deliver these services through an external network of professionals or
The range of issues addressed by a well-rounded EAP can be broad, encompassing everything from job stress, to addiction, harassment, and family violence.
A comprehensive EAP offering, for example, might include support, advice, or assistance around such issues as:
While some EAP providers offer assistance in specialized areas, others make self-help tools and self-service resources available specifically to help managers support their employees.
Existing EAP models are largely differentiated by their market positioning (quality, affordability, expertise, use of technology) and key program offerings.
While most traditional EAPs deliver their programs with the help of a referral network and some on-site service, many still rely on a 1-800 number and call centre model. Those that have enhanced or eliminated the call centre option generally do so by offering a mobile app or dedicated website log-in.
For offline appointments, members usually receive a call-back from the provider within 24-48 hours to schedule their first appointment.
In either case, however, the counselling and consultations provided by EAPs are typically short-term (3-6 sessions) and may be delivered by phone, in-person, or virtually using video or online chat. Program services are generally accessible by employees or plan members and their immediate families.
If you’re new to EAPs – or you’re thinking of overhauling your current plan – here are a few of the benefits and challenges that HR, business, and group plan leaders tend to experience when adopting an Employee Assistance Program.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the EAP is that it can both aid and inform on the health of your organization.
While allowing you to provide your workforce with crucial assistance from specialists in various fields, EAPs also benefit the managers who must support employees dealing with everything from workplace conflict to mental health issues.
A good assistance program helps ensure that your employees’ personal difficulties don’t compromise productivity within the workplace environment.
Not only does a well-utilized program have the potential to reduce both absenteeism and presenteeism, it can prove foundational to the type of wellness culture that, according to Sanofi Canada, plays an important role in employee attraction, retention, and job satisfaction.
Free, confidential access to short-term counselling for a variety of issues usually tops the list of benefits for EAP users. Without having to alert you or their colleagues, employees and plan members can improve their well-being by receiving the guidance they need to deal with confusing, uncomfortable, or painful situations.
By providing quick access to expert advice and counselling, EAPs have the potential to serve as the go-to solution for employees in crisis or for those who simply need help navigating a new or unexpected life situation.
Moreover, assistance programs can help employees feel more engaged at work and happier at home - without the worry of having to pay for professional services.
While employers value EAPs for their capacity to provide prompt support to employees in crisis, serve as a core mental health counselling service, and offer integrated financial and legal support, there are a number of pain points for which organizations are demanding solutions.
Some current challenges include:
The task of program promotion often falls squarely and unaided on the shoulders of overworked HR leaders and teams, with most engaged mental health programs, for example, requiring consistent and ongoing endorsement and communication.
Overall, program satisfaction levels have traditionally been variable, with many EAPs sadly underused (the approximate usage in Canada has been gauged at just 13%4). It’s also not uncommon for usage rate calculations that confuse utilization (number of cases) with penetration (number of unique individuals accessing a service) to lead to billing frustration.
It’s an unfortunate finding that poor health is more likely in employees and plan members who feel their benefit plan does not meet their needs5.
Some common program member challenges and complaints include:
An outdated user experience
Limited appointment hours or member contact options – along with insufficient staffing at generic call centres – are inconvenient and can lead to lengthy wait times for first or follow-up appointments that could last up to 1-2 weeks.
Poor or slow accessibility to service appointments
This is often due to a lack of practitioner availability and the absence of follow-up from 3rd party providers. Because many EAP providers use a network of external professionals, accessibility can vary quite a bit.
Short-term care, with no continuity
Once the limited number of sessions made available by most EAPs run out, the patient must often find a new provider on their own and start the process all over. There’s no continuity between services because intake notes are not cascaded to the treating provider, and there’s no transfer of history when counsellors are changed.
One of the biggest misconceptions experienced with traditional EAPs is that, while HR may understand it to be their organization’s core mental health program, they’re often surprised to learn that the out-referral process for their program has no personalization or follow-up. That same misconception trickles down to the employee, leaving them frustrated when they receive just 3 sessions for their anxiety or depression, followed by a goodbye.
Although EAPs have been around for decades and are clearly essential, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Many solutions haven’t evolved at all – yet organizations and cultural expectations have.
The growing demands of our fast-paced, competitive work environment have taken an increasing toll on our physical and emotional health, while putting added strain on our relationships. New societal norms and expectations, meanwhile, increase our daily dose of stress, leaving many of us overextended financially.
According to Mercer Canada6, “New ways of working have challenged the employee experience and organizations must invest in and prioritize elements . . . that will enable flexibility and an effective transition to the new normal, especially for critical talent and key roles. A compelling employee experience will serve as the differentiator between organizations that maintain productivity with thriving employees (even during times of uncertainty) and those that are challenged to maintain performance.”
As health and wellness continue to be a top priority for organizations, it's critical that we simplify access to important tools like EAPs, make it easy for people to get the support they need, when they need it, and adopt an enlightened care model - one that’s based on accompanying the patient through their support journey, rather than relying on them to “own” their own needs and care plan.
While the demand for EAPs has increased as more Canadians struggle with the mental and physical effects of the recent pandemic, navigating these legacy services can be a process-heavy and time-consuming effort, creating barriers for people who are in immediate need of help. Wait-times to seek help with current solutions, meanwhile, are notoriously long, reducing their effectiveness7.
The need for a more unified, streamlined, innovative EAP is clear – one that:
With the future in mind, Dialogue has designed a forward-focused EAP that couples essential program requirements - including quality practitioners and a full suite of free and confidential services – with single-point access to the employee well-being offerings that matter most.
This visionary hub was created to meet the growing needs of holistic care with:
By reimagining the EAP, Dialogue is helping business leaders and their teams stay poised for wellness success in 2020 and beyond.
With so many programs designed to drive health outcomes, how can you identify the right EAP for your organization?
Engaging a professional service of any kind requires some investigation. To kick-start your search, consider these key characteristics of a successful EAP:
Given the challenges frequently experienced by EAP users, it’s worth looking for a program that ramps up convenience by providing a single gateway to integrated health and wellness support via a secure, user-friendly app.
Ideally, that offering will be enhanced by same-day appointments, immediate, round-the-clock access to emergency counselling, and a proactive approach to follow-ups.
You may also want to consider the availability of tools, resources, and virtual counselling for managers, while looking for:
Bear in mind, too, that choosing a forward-thinking provider with an ecosystem of services for health and wellness (like telemedicine, for example) will result in a more comprehensive, more holistic offering that goes well beyond the standard EAP model.
With all that in mind, here are a few specific questions to ask potential EAP service providers:
As a final note, if you’re considering a plan redesign, you’ll create greater value overall by doing away with assumptions and asking existing members directly what’s most important to them in an EAP program.
Technology is an important consideration when choosing a program partner. Many traditional EAP providers are archaic. Having to use a 1-800 number to get in touch with program resources creates a poor experience and a barrier to care.
Moreover, when programs aren’t digital, plan members must literally find a brochure or ask their plan sponsor for information - potentially breaking confidentiality in the process.
Looking for EAPs that take advantage of technology to deliver an integrated user experience and seamless, online communications can do away with all that.
It’s technology, for example, that has allowed Dialogue to enable a highly efficient, automated screening process (75% of EAPs do not use a validated screening tool, relying instead on a 3 to 7-minute phone conversation for intake8) and a mobile-first EAP solution with a modern, easy-to-use app that connects members with the right professional quickly to help them avoid:
According to Mélina Lamarche at La Capitale Insurance and Financial Services, “Virtual healthcare is expanding and rightly so. It provides personalized medical support anytime, anywhere. The financial benefits are significant, and employees are very interested9.”
The use of digital devices and online apps for personal health purposes in Canada has risen from 32% to 53% since 201510.
And given that 71% of plan members say they’re willing to use virtual care technology to receive healthcare services11, it’s not surprising that several benefit providers have begun partnerships with virtual care suppliers.
Employees are often confused by what’s offered or included in their company’s EAP program – if, indeed, they’re aware they have access to such a program at all.
As a business leader or HR professional, you already know how much work it takes to drive organizational change. So what’s the best way to make sure your employees know about the EAP you’re implementing, understand how to access it, and appreciate all the ways it can help them?
A good provider will not only assist you in getting your new EAP up and running quickly, they’ll work with you over the long term to provide assistance, training, follow-ups, and evaluations that will help build awareness and trust in your program.
It’s one thing to implement an EAP, but you should also be able to show it’s making a positive impact on your organization.
Although research supports the fact that EAPs do create positive workplace outcomes in terms of cost savings, employee engagement and life satisfaction, and improved mental health, results can vary with usage. Ongoing monitoring and periodic evaluations are critical to ensure the needs of both employer and employee are being met.
Some key results you should be measuring include:
One of the best ways to assess impact and outcomes is through cost-benefit analyses and by working with an EAP provider who offers detailed reporting and insights.
HR leaders and plan sponsors often complain that the reporting traditional EAPs offer – especially in terms of evaluating the impact of their programs on employees and members – isn’t clear or relevant enough.
That’s why Dialogue provides regular, in-depth engagement reports that employ simple charts, graphs, and bold-face type to highlight the numbers that are most important to clients, including:
Dialogue’s reports also break utilization down by demographics and member location.
Transparent reporting is essential for quantifying real program usage, drop off, and satisfaction. But it’s equally important to flesh out those numbers with information from actual EAP users.
Make sure you ask your employees or plan members for feedback from time to time by sending out regular surveys or holding monthly or quarterly team meetings.
This will give you a better sense of:
While many organizations tend to focus on dollars – or ROI - when it comes to evaluating the success of their wellness initiatives, it’s just as important to consider VOI (value of investment).
In the case of your EAP, this should include scrutinizing the broader impact of your program on core priorities like improved employee morale, attraction, and retention, as well as greater customer loyalty.
It’s clear that organizations are looking for EAPs to combine an integrated, proactive scope of practice with better access and quality in terms of service delivery. As a result, there’s a trend within the current EAP market toward modernization, broader offerings, and improved promotion - but with little impact delivered to date.
While this may be due, in part, to large global players struggling to penetrate the Canadian market as a result of the French language requirement, Dialogue has responded to evolving needs and trends with an EAP designed to offer enhanced options like:
40% of plan sponsors cite “more services to prevent illness” as the most important thing they’d like to see to improve their health benefit plans12. And as Ryan Weiss from Canada Life explains it, “We’ve found that people are really interested in learning about their risks for future health issues, and what to do about that, and plan sponsors see real value in helping their members be proactive about reducing these risks13.”
The trending and popular use of technology, meanwhile, is another important factor in the developing EAP market. Says Marie-Chantal Côté of Sun Life Financial, “Technology is enabling the industry to explore new and better ways to bring flexibility into plan design14.”
With technology a key driving force behind plan flexibility, it was an easy decision for Dialogue to build upon its proprietary technology to improve the EAP experience.
While the EAP is widely implemented in Canadian organizations, and provides multiple benefits, there exists an important opportunity to evaluate the pain points, examine how it’s serving employers and employees, and ensure it continues to meet their evolving needs.
Any EAP analysis your organization undertakes should include an evaluation of both the results associated with what’s on offer today, and the potential for new, forward-facing offerings to boost historical outcomes.
The EAP of the future is a full-featured, centralized service hub for wellness that provides concrete support and solutions to real-time concerns.
So as we step into that future, there’s no time like the present to nurture your wellness culture by embracing technology, prioritizing plan flexibility, and seeking out high value benefits.