Health & Safety

Is an Employee Assistance Programme worthwhile?

employees working together

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is one of the most common workforce mental health interventions in the UK. But while most big businesses offer one of these, they often come under fire for being little more than a box-checking exercise.

What is an Employee Assistance Programme?

According to the EAP Association, nearly half of the workforce has access to an Employee Assistance Programme.

An employee assistance programme is an employer-paid scheme that lets employees contact an independent adviser on a confidential basis. This is normally so employees can discuss issues that may be troubling them – such as financial worries, problems with their mental health, or concerns about their employment. 

An EAP will often offer a range of support, including face-to-face, telephone and online. But not all programmes are the same.

Not all EAPs are created equal

Simon Sapper is an HR and workplace expert of over 30 years. He has direct experience negotiating and monitoring an Employee Assistance Programme and says that no single programme works in the same way. This is because the way EAPs work in practice is entirely bound up with workplace culture – and no two cultures are identical.

“EAPs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes,” he tells me. “Some employers offer things as part of their basic pay-and-conditions, that others will shunt into an EAP – access to certain types of medical or rehab services, for example.

When I asked Simon what should ideally be included in an Employee Assistance Programme, he said “whatever needs to be included to meet either the needs of the employer or the concerns of the workforce.”

Is an EAP just another tick-box exercise?

If you read my writing often, then you’ll know that I am often quite cynical about initiatives that claim to support the well-being of employees.

For example, in my recent address at our Future Of People conference, you may remember me talking about how positive mental health has become a bit of a bandwagon that employers are jumping onto because it makes them look good.

But am I right to apply this same cynicism to the concept of an Employee Assistance Programme? After all, on the surface, the idea of a free and independent advice service seems like a phenomenal employment benefit!

In Personnel Today, Brian Taylor writes that he is becoming increasingly concerned at how many companies treat EAPs passively, often only going halfway towards maximum potential.

“They fund a programme, hand out promotional leaflets, and put up some wall posters,” he writes, “to then place it in a filing cabinet under ‘done and dusted’. It is hardly surprising that everyone then treats an EAP as a box-ticking exercise.”

The programme will only work if you manage it correctly

Brian does not write off EAPs as a lost cause though. In fact, he only actually criticises employers who fail to use these programmes properly. The rest of his article goes on to praise the benefits of well-run EAPs. And Simon Sapper seems to agree.

“EAPs are not a box-ticking exercise,” he says. ”At worst, they are an arse-covering exercise. But in an increasingly tight labour market, employers need to stand out as being worthy of attention. And a thoughtful EAP can make the difference between landing the candidate you want and losing them.”

He adds that a well-managed EAP goes beyond recruitment. It can help you improve retention, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, minimise downtime, and boost your brand reputation.

But again, these benefits rely on employers managing these programmes in an effective way.

How the Royal Mail transformed their Employee Assistance Programme

In 2012, Dr Shaun Davis joined the Royal Mail as Global Director of Safety, Health, Well-being and Sustainability. When he first started his job, the Royal Mail had an EAP in a place called “Help”. But employees were not accessing the help on offer.

In an interview with People HR, Dr Davis recalled how this programme he had inherited, was being promoted by a fairly questionable poster.

“It showed a man hanging off a cliff,” he told me. “And we wondered why utilisation was so low! I realised that I needed to rebrand our programme into something employees would connect with.”

Dr Davis went on to build a programme he called “Feeling First Class”, which seriously transformed the way Royal Mail employees were able to find and access help. You can read more about this in my interview with Dr Davis here: Six powerful lessons for achieving First Class mental health at work.

You don’t need huge resources to offer employees a decent EAP

Naturally, the Royal Mail is a large organisation. This makes it slightly easier for them to fund and manage such a complex in-house operation as “Feeling First Class”.

But just because some organisations run their own Employee Assistance Programme, that doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller companies should shy away from the idea. In fact, quite the opposite.

“With a clear majority of all UK employers now being micro-businesses, in-house options are near non-existent,” says Simon Sapper. “But it’s an increasingly competitive market, and there are good cost-effective bespoke deals to be done with service providers.”

Indeed, an outsourced EAP could be a huge benefit to your employees, at a fairly low cost.

There are other benefits to using an outsourced EAP

But as well as being a potentially low-cost way to provide a highly valuable benefit, Simon says that there are other benefits to outsourcing an EAP.

“I would opt for an external EAP over an in-house solution” he explains. “It’s helpful to have people outside of the organisation looking after potentially some of the most sensitive issues and people within it.”

You see, the very idea of the programme being outsourced could even help to reassure employees that they will receive genuinely impartial advice. And this could be especially useful, considering that we live in a climate where many employees do not believe their HR department has their best interests at heart.

If you can afford it, get it done

In my opinion, if you can offer a comprehensive EAP to your employees, then you should.

Ultimately, no matter how big your business is, and no matter how well you treat your employees, they are going to run into difficulties in life. They could run into money troubles which require financial advice, a bereavement which requires compassionate leave, or a relationship breakdown where they could benefit from a counsellor.

While an EAP will not solve these problems single-handedly, it can give your employees a psychological lifeline at the very least. And if the EAP provider is competent, it may even help them find practical solutions to their problems.

But if you’re going to just file it as “sorted”, simply so you can say that it is something you offer for the sake of making yourself look good? Then it’s not going to do much good, because employees will likely not know how to access the help you are paying for.

For help finding an outsourced Employee Assistance Programme, you can visit the EAP Association. The EAP Association serves “to promote the highest standards of practice and the continuing development of employee assistance programmes in the UK.”

They have a helpful resource to help you find the right EAP provider for your company: