EAP is not a last resort: The evolution of EAPs in a post-pandemic world

Many businesses have it, but how do you drive engagement? Having seen EAPs grow through the decades, Stephen Galliano at Workplace Options shares his views.

Yugi the Giraffe - 17 February 2022

“It's empowering and liberating to not come across a bunch of middle-aged men in suits, sitting in a boardroom with their arms folded saying ‘we don’t have many mental health problems in this company’,” says Stephen Galliano, clinical psychologist, and Chief Customer Officer at Workplace Options. Galliano explains that since the pandemic, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) have really turned a corner, from being just another benefit to an essential support service. The Covid-19 crisis has dramatically changed the world of work in a short space of time, but how are EAPs keeping pace?

According to Galliano, the service is still evolving and broadening its focus to not only support people’s emotional wellbeing, but also prevent those levels from ebbing.

“Another big change to EAPs in the last 10 to 15 years has been that more programmes are now embracing what I would call broader wellbeing services and not just focused on mental health. More programmes are delivering coaching or wellness support and especially training, which has been a big evolution with EAPs in recent years.”

The importance of training within EAP

This has been true for Workplace Options, provider of YuLife’s EAP service ‘YuMatter’, which is now offering a broader suite of solutions to over 7 million employees to combat the rising mental health crisis. This holistic approach is sorely needed, as ONS figures found more than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect Covid-19 is having on their life.

Galliano enthuses that Workplace Options’ offering differs from its competitors because of its broad base of wellness services, which includes a mindfulness training programme, life coaching, legal and financial support, mental health counselling and also careers advice.

“Over the last three to four years, we've been developing and launching a range of new services,” says Galliano, adding that its new telephone-based mindfulness training is a “proactive preventative programme” that encourages people to call at the first signs of struggle.

“[They can call] because they’re concerned that they’re under some sort of pressure that, if it were to continue, could evolve into a mental health problem,” he says.

“We take them through a six-session mindfulness programme on the phone… just one example of what we’re doing to broaden the appeal of EAP, so it’s not seen as a last resort."

“If they’ve got sleeping difficulties or can’t disconnect from work, for example, we will take them through a unique six-session mindfulness programme on the phone. That’s just one example of what we are doing to broaden the appeal of EAP, so it’s not seen as a last resort.”

This type of coaching is gaining notoriety and popularity: according to a report by Unmind on trends that will shape workplace health in 2022, mental health training is at the top of the HR agenda.

In a poll of 1,500 global HR decision-makers, the majority (87%) said mental health training is either very, or somewhat important for managers, leaders, and all staff. Additionally, more than 8 in 10 survey-takers said digital or online wellbeing tools (85%) will be important, likewise mental health training for all employees (87%), and wellbeing champion initiatives (80%).

This step-change in EAP offering, while steadily growing over the last decade has become a business imperative because of the pandemic – as Galliano points out, home working was perhaps a pleasant and welcome change to begin with but now “the honeymoon is over”.

“The reality of working from home is really hitting, and it’s not easy,” he says. “ We know that people who had pre-existing problems before the pandemic have seen these issues growing over the last two years. And lifestyles have also altered for many. The best EAP  programmes can include broader wellbeing services such as wellness coaching to help employees review their lifestyles and support necessary changes. Some lifestyles, such as overeating and a lack of exercise can result in illness and much of these habits are driven by mental health issues, and we’ve seen more of that happening. But more people are prepared to talk about their difficulties, especially at work.”

Communication and accessibility are key

EAP offerings are undoubtedly going through an evolutionary period driven predominantly by the aftermath of the pandemic, which has forced a shift to holistic and preventative options for employees. However, some areas of EAP awareness and communication are yet to catch up to the rapid level of change.

Despite the growing need for mental health support, employers are still not communicating their wellbeing benefits to employees. A survey of employees by Health Shield found that 55% of respondents were not fully aware of the employee benefits and wellbeing services they were entitled to as part of their employment package.

Galliano believes that while employees do use the service, in many programmes the utilisation can be low. Conversely, Workplace Options’ uptake and levels of engagement in the UK range from 4-10% of employees in any one year. This is a healthy range but he stresses that communication and ongoing promotion are key to uptake.

“It is driven very much by how well the programme is promoted and understood by employees of the organisations that we’re serving,” he explains. “If they fully understand what it [the service] is, and don’t see any blocks to accessing it, then we find the utilisation and engagement levels are high.”

One of the biggest challenges that the industry has, according to Galliano, is driving a good enough level of engagement with very large and widely-dispersed organisations. “That’s also the greatest challenge that the client has,” he says.

“If you’ve got 150,000 employees, scattered across 2,000 locations then you’ve got to make sure you get the message to all of those people. You need to make sure every employee knows there’s a programme and what it does.” He continues: “Even with the best intentions and wills in the world, getting that message right is key. And if you don’t get it right, you could see utilisation as low as 1%.”

The messaging around EAP and uptake are symbiotic, as it must dispel any myths that deter employees from using it, such as confidentiality and cost. But the main issue, he insists, is getting people to understand EAP and ensuring there are “simple routes to access it”, which is where the use of an app, such as YuLife, becomes extremely beneficial.

The benefits of having an EAP

The knock-on effect on employees’ mental health and productivity since the pandemic has been huge.  A recent study by Champion Health revealed two-thirds of people (67.2%) are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress and that 28% have seen their productivity negatively impacted by high stress levels in the last two years.

This is where an EAP makes sound business sense, says Galliano, who explains that mental health can have a dramatic impact on work. “If you're depressed, you're likely not to be able to focus or concentrate, and you're likely not to be able to have the energy to deliver to work at a pace,” he explains. “You’re also going to make mistakes, your engagement will be poor and this impacts the whole of your team. Your mental health can reduce your level of effectiveness, productivity and performance.” But employees that have access to an EAP service will be able to “develop resilience or new skills to cope with what’s happening”.

Additionally, Galliano feels that businesses that don’t offer an EAP are simply “behind the times” when it comes to mental health support in the workplace. “A good employer must be concerned for the psychological welfare of their employees,” he explains. “Although the majority of emotional issues employees call us about are personal in origin, the workplace still generates significant challenges, pressure and ultimately stress for many employees. Employers are  not entirely innocent in this!”

The future of EAPs

While there are some aspects of EAPs that are yet to catch up with its rapid change, the EAP industry has still got some big changes on the horizon. The pandemic has been the catalyst for unprecedented change in the world of work, and Galliano predicts that this will progress even further still.

Wellbeing services will play a big role in how EAPs adapt to fit with the new way of work, but he also believes there will be more integration with digital health. “I do not believe robots will ever take over,” he muses. “Counselling can’t be done by robots, and even though there are trials and research going into that now, people will always want to speak and engage with a human.

“There will be more integration with mental health apps – there has to be. And that will become extremely important to us.” He adds that interconnectivity between Workplace Options’ app and award-winning apps such as YuLife’s is the next big step. Part of this will feed into removing the barriers for use, as clients want apps to be interconnected through API, so employees can access EAP services through the specially designed apps they’re familiar with.

Ultimately, Galliano can hear the winds of change for EAP uptake across the UK as employers are no longer denying that mental health issues exist. He adds: “As time goes by, I think most employers are going to have to accept that they need to put measures in place to address people risk issues and mental health risk issues within the population. An EAP is one very obvious, effective and easy to implement option for businesses.”

Yugi the Giraffe

Yugi is our YuLife mascot. Like all giraffes they've got a big heart – in fact the biggest heart of all land animals.