EAPs have seen a pretty dramatic evolution. Starting out life in the 1940s as a very focused solution to white-collar alcoholism in US office culture, their remit widened over the decades to the management of behavioural issues that affect performance at work.
Their popularity in the UK really took off from 2002, when case law (more specifically Sutherland v Hatton) determined that having an EAP in place would help tick the employer Duty of Care box.
And that was that. Now 88 per cent of organisations offer EAPs, and a report by the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association found that close to half of the workforce – almost 14m workers – are covered by one.
EAPs are acknowledged in the Stevenson Farmer Review as a useful support and signposting service to clinical help. But, at the same time, the authors recommend the industry provides better support to help employers assess EAPs – and occupational health services – by developing standards and online comparison tools.
Karl Bennett, business development director of EAP provider Care First, and also a member of the EAP Association, argued that the value of EAPs has become somewhat lost over time thanks to the
perception that they represent a cure-all for every mental health condition, right up to long-term mental illness. “A psychologist or psychiatrist is there to unpack everything. EAPs aren’t designed for that. They’re solution focused.”
He said that in the past EAPs were always provided as standalone services direct to companies. Awareness training for managers came as part of the package.
Then insurers began offering EAPs as free, embedded services in group income protection with the promise of reducing absenteeism and claims.
“The problem now is that EAPs are for everyone, but not all employers have the infrastructure to educate. When they were provided to fewer, but the education was greater, the impact was enormous,” said Bennett.
“Now, people are contacting their EAP provider for everything: from low mood to depression and even deep-seated problems from childhood.”
He said that the problem is being increased by GPs who are signposting to employer-provided EAP services, where available, for anything mental health-related.
“The onus is on the industry to educate. We’re not a fix-all for every condition. One session is probably enough for low mood.
“But people are calling us saying they need X number of sessions for whatever problem their GP say needs addressing and that’s where the decline in quality comes in.”
MEC managing director Ian Holmes agreed, adding he is definitely seeing more employers going back to standalone services for this reason.
“The fact that line managers are constantly being encouraged to signpost to the EAP when it might not be the most suitable route isn’t helping matters,” added Barnett Waddingham workplace wellbeing consultant Laura Matthews.
Advisers highlighted that insurer literature doesn’t include any caveats around what employers and employees should and shouldn’t use an EAP for.
“Everyone’s talking about CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] as the cure all. The problem is you used to go to a counsellor to find out if CBT was appropriate,” adds Holmes.
Legal & General distribution director – group protection Colin Fitzgerald said that providers of EAPs and group income protection “can only be components of the absence journey, not the journey itself.”
Howdens Employee Benefits head of benefits strategy Steve Herbert agreed with Fitzgerald, saying: “I’ve always said an EAP is a first port of call.”
“That’s great,” adds Bennett. “But that’s not being said across the board. “The problem is every call goes through to a BACP accredited counsellor and there are only so many available. An EAP should be about accessing a counsellor when needed.
“If the industry demands that EAPs provide everyone with something, it’s the EAP concept that’s going to break.”