In the past decade, employee assistance programs have become an increasingly common component of employee benefit packages.
Around 97 percent of companies in the U.S. with more than 5,000 employees, 80 percent of companies with between 1,000 and 5,000 employees and 75 percent of companies with 251 to 1,000 employees now offer EAPs, according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
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So what are they, and why have so many employers adopted them?
The term employee assistance program covers a broad range of voluntary, confidential programs companies or organizations offer to help employees through personal or work-related problems. Today, EAPs help employees deal with many issues, including everything from family problems, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, to financial issues or office conflicts.
But they have their roots in a more specific plan developed by the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies in the 1940s to help businesses overcome worker shortages during World War II by addressing alcoholism in the workplace. While a huge portion of the country’s working-age young men were fighting abroad, companies back home struggled to fill the positions they left behind. Some were forced to begin broadening their search for workers to include a pool of candidates they otherwise would not have considered. And that pool included people struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction.
In response to requests from company leaders to help them fix problems with alcohol in the workplace, the Center of Alcohol Studies developed the “Yale Plan for Business and Industry.” It was a report that urged business leaders to view alcoholism as a treatable disease rather than a moral vice, and informed them that the workplace was, in their view, the best place to identify and treat alcoholics.
It recommended supervisors keep an eye out for signs and symptoms of alcoholism and explained different ways company leaders could refer alcoholic employees to counseling and treatment programs.
The Yale Plan is considered the forerunner of the modern employee assistance program, which has evolved over time to cover a much more comprehensive set of personal, health-related and workplace problems that affect employee productivity and engagement on the job.
“What it is, typically, is a completely confidential, outside objective resource that becomes a go-to-resource that employees of a company might use due to certain circumstances,” said Deb Schultz, director of total rewards at MRA-The Management Association, of modern EAPs. “They might not even be able to specify what the problem is, but they can turn to that objective outside resource to get help early on and prevent an issue from escalating, or becoming overwhelming or disrupting their lives or the lives of people around them.”
MRA is the largest employer association in the Midwest. Schultz oversees the MRA’s services for member companies related to employee benefits, compensation and surveys.
In recent years, Schultz said she has noticed an increasing number of organizations considering EAPs a baseline component of benefit packages.
“The reason is because people live in a much more social and mobile environment where we tend to be available 24/7, and that in itself tends to bring some complexities, along with some employment- or benefit-related issues,” Schultz said.
Schultz said EAPs can help companies attract potential employees by sending a strong message that they care about the wellbeing of their employees, and it can also serve as a way to retain employees by giving them tools to cope with or overcome personal or workplace problems that might otherwise have caused them to seek employment elsewhere.
In addition, EAPs can help a company’s bottom line by lowering medical costs, improving employee productivity, providing another pathway to connect employees with on-site training programs and reducing turnover or absenteeism.
“It will send a very strong message to the employees or the candidates considering the organization that you care about me and that’s a very, very powerful message,” Schultz said.