Originally designed to address the negative effects of alcohol abuse on productivity and organizational performance, employee assistance programs (EAPs) have evolved immensely since their inception. Today, EAPs are structured to manage a wide range of complex issues surrounding employee mental health.

Though employers have been ramping up their EAP initiatives for some time now, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic that’s catapulting this workplace benefit to greater heights.

COVID-19 and Employee Mental Health

A 2020 report by Ginger shows that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic employees were already experiencing high levels of stress. But, “Once the pandemic hit, employees were feeling more stressed than ever before in their careers.” Per the report, COVID-19 is causing employees more stress than both the Great Recession and 9/11.

Ginger’s survey also found that because of the pandemic, employees are “missing full days of work due to stress, they’re missing meetings, struggling to collaborate with colleagues, and are less productive.” Further, “Since COVID-19, absenteeism can be measured not in days per year, but by hours per day, with nearly two-thirds of employees missing an hour or more of work every day.”

In May 2020, Time magazine wrote that “mental distress among Americans has tripled during the pandemic compared to 2018.” And, multiple reports say that the COVID-19 outbreak has triggered an uptick in domestic violence.

How EAPs Can Help

EAPs are employer-sponsored programs that help employees cope with issues that can adversely impact their productivity and the organization’s performance. These issues may stem from alcohol and substance abuse; marital/family/relationship turmoil; medical, financial, and legal issues; and mental health problems.

Though EAPs come in various forms, their core services generally include short-term counseling, treatment referrals, employee assessments, organizational assessments, manager consultations, and employee education/training. Some EAPs provide financial, retirement, legal, family, child, and elder assistance; and some offer intervention for critical incidents — such as death, accidents, and natural disasters.

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, EAPs can help employees (and their family members) deal with:

  • Isolation
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Substance abuse
  • Grief
  • Insomnia
  • Financial issues
  • Family conflict
  • Housing and child-care concerns
  • Workplace adjustments, such as telecommuting

Depending on the service, EAP communications can take place in person, by phone, or via internet and mobile applications. To encourage social distancing during COVID-19, most EAPs are delivering care through digital and remote mediums, such as video, phone, and live chat.

EAP services are free for employees and their family members. The employer absorbs the cost. Normally, EAPs cost employers between $12 and $40 per employee annually, according to a 2017 report by the Employee Assistance Society of North America. Studies show an ROI of $3-10 for every $1 that employers invest in an EAP.

The services are generally confidential, meaning EAP providers cannot disclose communications between themselves and the employee or the employee’s family member. However, in certain situations, EAP providers (like any other licensed health professional) must report to the proper authorities, such as when the client threatens to commit a serious crime or poses a danger to themself.

EAP Usage in the Age of COVID-19

As evidenced by SHRM’s 2019 employee benefits study, a majority of employers (91% of those surveyed) were already offering EAP services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite most employers offering an EAP, the services have a track record of being underutilized by employees — typically because employees not aware of the program, don’t know how to access the benefits, worry about confidentiality, or are concerned about mental health stigmas.

Therefore, in the COVID-19 era, the focus is on making sure employees know about the EAP services available to them, encouraging them to participate in the program as needed, and alleviating their fears about stigmas and confidentiality.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, 57.1% of employers are ramping up communication about their EAP offerings, per a survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity. Additionally, 25.4% of employers are expanding their EAP program to include up to one year of bereavement counseling, among other things.

Industries such as construction and maintenance, hospitality and accommodations, arts, food service, and entertainment and recreation have consistently ranked among those with the highest risk for workplace problems. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, companies in these high-risk industries are increasingly turning to EAPs.

For example, an article published by EHS Today states that amidst the pandemic, construction employers are addressing common mental health problems in their industry — such as suicide and the potential for addiction — by encouraging the use of EAPs.

Employees, as well, are understanding the importance of utilizing their employer’s mental health benefits during COVID-19. According to Ginger’s 2020 report, “There’s a notable increase in employees who are taking advantage of [employer-sponsored] mental health benefits since COVID-19, whereas from 2019 to 2020 before COVID, there was little change.”