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March 20, 2019

15 Keys to Mental Health Safety Net

Summary:

Here are the questions to ask to ensure that your employee assistance program provides robust help for employees' mental health.

Acknowledgment: Thank you, Dr. Jodi Frey and Jon Kinning, for assisting in the preparation of this article.

The employee assistance program (EAP) might be one of the best-kept secrets for many employers. Instead, EAPs should be resources widely publicized to help encourage managers, employees and often their family members so that support services for personal and workplace problems can mitigate risk and promote vibrant workers. Many employers simply “check the box” when signing up for the EAP benefit, figuring health insurance will cover the mental health needs of their employees; however, most employers really don’t know what the EAP services entail or the value the services can bring to a workplace.

With that said, not all EAPs are created equal. EAP services vary greatly, including some or all of the following::

  • biospsychosocial assessments, including substance use assessments
  • individual and family counseling
  • financial and legal coaching and referrals for counseling
  • referrals for additional services, with follow-up
  • psychoeducation through workshops, newsletters and other communication for personal and workplace concerns, including stress management, parenting, mental health literacy, relationships and organizational change and individual crisis prevention, crisis response and support
  • mediation and team development
  • leadership consultation, coaching and development
  • fitness for duty evaluations
  • suicide risk assessment, treatment and “postvention” (i.e. what to do after a suicide)
  • staff training on best practices on how to support someone in distress
  • and more

Sometimes, the services are cursory, such as a brief telephone assessment and referral by a contracted outside provider. Other EAPs provide robust and high-touch services like 24-hour support; on-line assessment and information; telephone and in-person assessment and counseling; on-demand crisis consultation; on-site workshops; mental wellness promotion; and much more. As with many things, you get what you pay for, so employers need to decide how much they are willing to invest in the mental wellbeing of their workers and conduct a cost-benefit analysis. However, EAPs, even more customized programs with onsite services, have been shown to be cost-effective to employers through the years.

Are EAPs Effective?

While the research on the effectiveness of EAPs is limited, studies have found that employees’ use of EAPs enhanced outcomes, especially in “presenteeism” (how healthy and productive employees are), life satisfaction, functioning and often absenteeism (Joseph, et al., 2017; Frey, Pompe, Sharar, Imboden, & Bloom 2018; Attridge et al., 2018; Richmond, et al., 2017). In one longitudinal, controlled study, EAP participants were more likely than non-EAP participants to see a reduction in anxiety and depression (Richmond, et al, 2016). Another matched control study found that users of EAP services often reduced their absenteeism more quickly than non-EAP users experiencing similar challenges (Nunes, 2018). In another longitudinal study (Nakao, et al, 2007), 86% of people who were suicidal when they engaged with their EAP were no longer suicidal at two years follow-up. Researchers have concluded that, while not all EAPs are created equal, they often provide accessible services that are effective at improving employee mental health and well-being.

See also: Impact on Mental Health in Work Comp  

Are EAPs Prepared to Support an Employer Facing an Employee Crisis With Suicide?

When it comes to the life-and-death issue of suicide, EAPs have the potential to provide evidence-based suicide prevention, intervention and postvention services to employers. The EAPs’ contribution to the comprehensive workplace suicide prevention strategy is essential, and many would benefit from annual state-of-the-art training in evidence-based methods of suicide risk formulation and treatment to help distressed employees get back on their feet. Social workers, who provide the majority of EAP clinical services in the U.S., often report having no formal training in suicide formulation, response and recovery (Feldman & Freedenthal, 2006; Jacobson et al., 2004), so annual continuing education on suicide intervention and suicide grief support is often helpful to providers. Once trustworthy and credentialed providers have been identified, they should be highlighted in the “suicide crisis” protocol, so that companies are not trying to do this leg work in the midst of a crisis.

If one of the main messages in suicide prevention is “seek help,” we need to make sure the providers are confident and competent with best practices approaches to alleviating suicidal despair and getting people back on track to a life worth living. Thus, dedicated employers will evaluate and even challenge their EAP providers to demonstrate continuing education in the areas of suicide prevention, intervention and postvention skills. In fact, some states are mandating that all mental health professionals, including licensed providers of EAP services, have some sort of continuing training in suicide risk formulation and recovery.

Do Employees Know About the Benefit of Their EAP?

In addition to making sure the providers have the needed skills, companies need to make sure that their employees know when and how to access the care. Recently, the American Heart Association and CEO Roundtable worked with experts in the behavioral health field to develop a white paper for employers, which includes seven specific actions employers can take to improve the mental health of their employees (Center for Workplace Health, American Heart Association, 2019). The report can be viewed online here. Dr. Jodi Frey, expert panelist for the report and internationally recognized expert in the EAP and broader behavioral health field recommends that “employers need carefully consider their workplace’s needs when selecting an EAP, and then should work with their EAP as a strategic partner to develop programs and communications that encourage utilization of the program and continued evaluation to improve services over time.” (Dr. Jodi Frey, personal communication, March 18, 2019).

Employers that are mindful of their workers’ well-being will continually promote well-vetted and employee-backed resources throughout the career of the workers. Leadership testimonials of the efficacy of the resources after the leaders have used them for their own mental health would bring credibility to the resources and model appropriate self-care to the employees. Bringing the resources on-site to the workers (and not waiting until the workers stumble upon the resources) is another way to break through the barriers to care. The Employee Assistance Society for North American (EASNA) developed a guide to help employers evaluate EAPs and determine appropriate vendors. The guide also can be used to help employers evaluate their current EAP and decide if needs are being met or if more attention to what services should be offered needs to be addressed. The guide can be downloaded free.

Are There Different Types of EAPs?

Much diversity exists in EAP structure and quality (Frey, et al, 2018). Some companies use internal EAPs, where providers are also employees of the company. This arrangement often provides the benefit of having an immediate resource that has clear knowledge of the company and industry culture. Evaluation of internal EAPs has found increased utilization, customization and supervisor referrals (Frey, et al, 2018); however, there are some drawbacks. Internal EAPs, because they are so closely connected to the company, run the risk of being perceived as having blurred lines of confidentiality and objectivity. By contrast, external EAPs are often more diverse and can respond 24/7 across a vast geography. Because of these benefits and consequences, many companies have moved to a hybrid model to get the best of both models.

Hybrid EAPs often have an internal employee to manage the EAP and to work with managers and employees on critical incident response, strategic planning and organizational change, and to provide onsite assessment and problem resolution. They can be an important ally for the employer to understand the potential for an EAP and to help evaluate whether EAP providers are effective in their response and offering high-quality services (Frey, 2017).

See also: What if They Say ‘Yes’ to Suicide Question?  

EAPs are most effective when they understand the industry and organizational culture, have business acumen and can adapt to changes in organizational structure (Frey, et al., 2017; Frey, et al., 2018). Thus, employers seeking to find a best fit for their employees will interview mental health providers about their knowledge of the unique stressors and strengths in the industry. Some industries (e.g., emergency responders and aviation) have gone so far as to credential mental health providers as being specialists in their industry to avoid a mismatch.

Case Study From the COO of a Construction Contractor

“We had an issue where our EAP was referring counselors outside of our healthcare providers, so, after the three free sessions, the participant learned they could only continue with the suggested provider at $150 a session; so the employees would drop out. My understanding is that counseling often takes around seven sessions to have a sustained impact, so, I put in a mandate with our HR team to renegotiate our EAP to ONLY refer in-network counselors, or they would pay for the continued care.

“We then incorporated our EAP into our safety program. When there is a serious accident, we deploy counselors and have our EAP involved for post-accident assistance to our employees. Accidents can bring up traumatic responses from our employees, and these experiences bring up memories from other accidents they may have been involved in or around. This cumulation of trauma can be highly distressing for them.

“In the early years, we had to work through the skepticism that the EAP would notify management of anyone that used the service. Since HIPAA came into play, we have less of this skepticism. The employees thought they would get fired or laid off first if they had issues.

“I’ve worked with our safety and wellness groups to actually pick up and call the EAP for someone in distress and get them on the phone. Once they lay the groundwork with the counselor, they hand the phone over and leave and let the employee get the help they need. This helps break down the stigma, and some people just don’t have the courage or have a mental block about picking up the phone for help. This has been VERY effective to get those in need the help they need.

“We promote our EAP in our weekly newsletter, and we also have business cards with the information, and we utilize hard-hat stickers that have all the information. This helps it be available when they need it.

“I’ve also encouraged our managers to use the system so they can promote it from their point of view. This also has helped remove the stigma around using the EAP. I also talk when in front of our employees about the program and educate them so they will use it. Our utilization rate is the highest in our EAP network, and I think this is the reason why.”

15 Questions Workplaces Should Ask to Strengthen the Mental Health Safety Net

Employers should remember they are the customers of their EAP, and they should do the due diligence to make sure they are getting the best benefit possible. Here are 15 questions employers should ask their EAP to get the best services possible:

  1. What services does your EAP cover? Are these services available 24/7?
  2. Who answers the calls of the EAP, and how are they trained and supervised? What professional and educational preparation and certifications do they have? Are they licensed?
  3. How are counselors selected and trained? Are certain licenses and other credentials required to be a part of the EAP provider network?
  4. What types of training have EAP providers received? Specifically, when was the last time they received training in suicide risk formulation and treatment?
  5. How is your EAP reporting utilization? How does your workplace’s utilization rate compare with others in your industry and what can be done by the EAP and by you as the employer to encourage more utilization?
  6. Do your employees know about your EAP services and how to access them?
  7. For those who have used the EAP, how satisfied were they with the services? Did the services help with the problem for which they were seeking support?
  8. When employees completed EAP services, did the EAP follow up (or attempt to follow up) with the employee to make sure all needs were met?
  9. How does your EAP interact with health plans? Are EAP providers also providers of outpatient mental health, and, if not, are they well-versed in the benefits of employees to make effective and seamless referrals?
  10. How is your EAP measuring outcomes? Can they also provide you with a return-on-investment (ROI) or other cost-benefit analysis?
  11. How is the EAP promoting upstream mental health efforts like prevention, resilience, positive psychology and work-life integration?
  12. Are there general mental health screening or other wellness tools the EAP can offer the workers to help them understand and monitor their mental wellness? Does the organization also assess its own culture of system-level mental wellness?
  13. Does the EAP have experience serving clients in our industry? If yes, what are some recommendations to improve how EAP services are promoted and offered at our workplace?
  14. Is the employer receiving regular reports (i.e., bi-annual, annual) from the EAP on utilization, presenting problems, satisfaction and other workplace outcomes?
  15. Does the EAP provide manager or HR training on how best to support an employee experiencing a mental health or suicide crisis? Are there additional staff training on skills needed to identify and assist employees in distress?
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About the Author

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.

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