Employee Assistance Programs Keep Working


CHICAGO (TheStreet) - Given the rampant cost-cutting at American businesses these days, it's no surprise to hear generous benefits packages are becoming increasingly rare. According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2011 Employee Benefits Survey, the number of companies offering tuition reimbursement, relocation benefits, adoption assistance and even company picnics has dropped significantly over the past five years.

But not all benefits are on the chopping block. Three-quarters of the companies surveyed offered an Employee Assistance Program, which allows workers free access to confidential counseling. EAPS, it seems, are a win-win: They increase employee satisfaction and boost productivity. The good news is that they can also be customized to a fit a small business's needs and limited budget.

As a general rule, about 4% to 6% of employees take advantage of an EAP in any given year. But with the recession, utilization rates have been rising, and now companies in some industries have seen 30% or more of their employees seek assistance.

Numerous studies have shown that offering counseling to employees is good for the bottom line. Workers distracted by family conflicts, financial trouble or caregiver responsibilities are more likely to take time off from work, call in sick or spend their days distracted by problems. A recently released study of more than 50,000 EAP cases from Canada found that such intervention can reduce lost productivity costs by about 25%.

Traditionally, EAPs are provided by outside vendors that charge a flat yearly rate for their services. For a company with 100 employees (the minimum number most providers will work with), a comprehensive plan starts around $5,000 per year, although it may be lower in certain areas of the country. The specifics of the plan can vary. Most allow employees three or four sessions with a counselor, while others follow an "assess and refer" model in which a counselor does an initial phone assessment, then refers the employee to a specialist for more targeted help.

Companies with fewer than 100 employees can offer an EAP by following a fee-for-service model. A standard plan might charge $500 per case, which would include three or four counseling sessions, referrals if necessary to specialized providers and a follow-up session later.

Smaller companies often don't set up an EAP until forced to do so by a specific, traumatic event, such as employee showing up to work drunk or an on-site industrial accident. But doing your research beforehand can assure that you get best, most cost-effective plan for your needs, rather than settling for something quickly out of desperation.

"It's extremely important that there's a good fit between what you want in terms of services for your employee population and your EAP provider," says Marina London, of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. "There's a difference between shopping at Kmart and a small boutique. Are you looking for a high-quality, high-touch experience, or fast food?"

The EAP should also offer 24/7, year-round access so employees can talk to a counselor whenever they're in crisis (which is often late at night or during stressful holidays). "That immediacy is extremely valuable," London says. "It should be free to the employee and available at any time, so the barrier to entry is very low."

Once you make the benefit available, it works only if employees take advantage of it. Some many feel ashamed they can't work out problems out on their own, or worry that seeking counseling will reflect badly on them professionally. It's the boss' job to de-stigmatize the EAP by making clear that contacting a counselor is a positive, proactive choice.

Without easy access to a counselor, troubled employees are more likely to turn to the mental-health professionals available through their health insurance plans, which are much more expensive and not always necessary. "Not everyone needs a psychiatrist," London says. "Sometime we just need someone to talk to. An EAP can provide that or help connect you to the right provider."

Where do you find a provider willing to create a customized small-business plan? The Employee Assistance Professionals Association website is a good place to start. You can search the group's database of members, as well as find contact information for a chapter in your area. You'll find that the smaller providers are well versed in the issues you face. After all, they are small businesses, too.

—For more tips and tricks on anything relating to your job, visit MainStreet’s “Careers” topic page for our latest coverage!

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