A recent article in Forbes asked whether it is time to reconsider Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). The article’s author is the founder of an employee benefits solution and points out that EAPs are significantly underutilized and undervalued by employees. As a result of this lack of appreciation and use for EAPs, the author argues that more personalized, specialized services would better serve employees, rather than the typical “one size fits all” approach of EAPs.
The author is correct that EAPs offer a wide array of services. According to SHRM, an EAP is a:
“[W}ork-based intervention program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting their performance at work, such as marital, financial or emotional problems; family issues; or substance or alcohol misuse. EAPs may also offer a wide array of services covering basic legal assistance and referrals, adoption assistance, help finding elder care services, wellness programs, and more.”
That’s a lot of different services, and employers may offer some or all of those services through their EAP. And the author is absolutely correct that EAPs are underutilized. According to a recent article in HR Magazine, “EAP utilization averages below 10 percent.” The article cites a study by the National Business Group on Health that found median EAP utilization in 2018 was 5.5 percent.
Those utilization rates are abysmal. But, as pointed out in another article by SHRM, EAP services often go unused because they aren’t aware of the services or feel there’s a stigma around using these services. The stigma explanation likely harkens back to the common, historical assumption that EAPs are first and foremost a service addressing mental health and substance abuse issues. Certainly the federal government has issued several opinion letters evaluating EAPs and ERISA compliance, and those opinion letters describe EAPs that provide “counseling services” or “substance abuse testing” services. See Department of Labor Opinion Letters 88-4A, 83-35A, and 91-26A.
Despite this historical emphasis on mental health and substance use services, the federal government has admitted in official guidance that “no universal definition exists for EAPs.” See 79 Fed. Reg. at 59132 (Oct. 1, 2014). The fact that there is no “official” definition of what constitutes an EAP is both a blessing and a curse.
It is a curse because that adds to the confusion that employees experience about what the EAP is for and the stigma that has been attached to the traditional EAP services of mental health and substance use services. A clear definition would at least provide some certainty around the purpose of an EAP.
But, the lack of official definition, at least from a regulatory standpoint, offers flexibility to adapt EAPs to meet the needs of employees. So, contrary to what the author of the Forbes article contests, EAPs should not be on the chopping block because EAPs can be whatever an employer designs it to be. EAPs should not be equated with generalized mental health and substance use services. Rather, based on the lack of official definition, EAPs merely serve as a vehicle to deliver a variety of services that can meet the specialized, personalized needs of employees. There is no need to scrap an EAP. They just need a rebrand.
One way employers could rebrand their EAPs is to incorporate concepts from their workplace wellness programs and their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Like EAPs, workplace wellness programs also need to evolve and rebrand. If the goal of workplace wellness programs is to improve worker productivity and bring down health care costs, then employers must adopt a more holistic view of wellness. This holistic view must address structural and social drivers of health, such as physical environment, family situations, housing, immigration status, and other socioeconomic factors. As we wrote in a recent blog post, wellness-legal partnerships could address a lot of these structural and social drivers of health. Because legal assistance can be part of EAPs, employers could offer such wellness-legal partnerships through EAPs. These partnerships would by extension address structural and social inequities that undermine the ability to achieve optimal health and wellness for many individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. A company’s DEI officer or team could use the EAP as a resource when exploring how to improve the employee experience in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Because EAPs offer flexibility in terms of benefits offered, and because there is no law that states EAPs must be called “EAPs,” employers could rename the EAP to something more meaningful to employees. Two examples might be “Wellbeing Resource” or “Employee Wellbeing and Justice Resource.” There are likely many other possible names employers could give their EAP. Regardless, renaming the EAP may help reduce the stigma and increase the utilization of the services.
Of course, it is important that as employers explore rebranding their EAP that they do not lose sight of the regulations that impact EAP service deliver, such as ERISA, COBRA, HIPAA, ACA and MHPAEA. Our law firm can help you navigate this regulatory landscape. Contact us today so we can assist you in improving your EAP to meet employee wellness needs.
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