Employers and their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) have taken on a huge role in delivering mental health services to the UK population, according to new figures.
Data from a ‘state-of-the-market’ survey among members of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA UK) reveal how more people are turning to their workplace EAP over NHS services.
The new Holding it together: UK mental wellbeing and the role of Employee Assistance Programmes report suggests that EAP services are now available to 24.45 million employees working across more than 105,000 organisations (75% of the entire workforce) — compared with availability to 4.9 million employees at 3,139 organisations in 2003. An estimated 640,250 employees contacted their EAP in the period between January 2022 and January 2023 — of which, 434,250 (68%) were offered counselling as a result of concerns over their mental health. EAPs delivered more than 1.375 million counselling sessions.
The figures illustrate how EAPs — originally set up in the late 1970s as telephone helplines giving straightforward advice on financial and legal matters — are having to deal with increasingly complex and severe mental health issues in UK society. On average, 1.7% of counselling cases came with a ‘red flag’ (involving an immediate and serious risk of suicide). This translates to more than 10,000 lives at serious risk from suicide each year. Some EAP providers report red flag cases as being at levels above 3%.
The UK EAP market is valued at more than £118 million compared with £32.2 million in 2003.
Project lead and immediate past EAPA UK chair, Eugene Farrell said: “EAPs are now a hugely valuable resource to employers and employees. Anecdotally, EAP providers know that GPs are increasingly encouraging patients with mental health concerns to contact their EAP if they have one. As the report data shows, this also means EAPs are being treated as a frontline emergency service and involved with complex, long-term cases of mental illness.
Karl Bennett, new EAPA UK chair, said: “EAPs have become a pillar of mental health provision for the UK, providing rapid access to professional support for the majority of the workforce, and delivering value-for-money for employers. The question now is what happens in the next 20 years. How will EAPs continue to take on an ever-increasing mental health role as society’s demands grow?”
Commenting on the figures, Sir Cary Cooper CBE, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School said: “This is the stage we’ve reached, where figures relating to the mental health of the UK workforce are shocking but also unsurprising. Most worrying about the EAPA UK figures is the number of employees with severe depression, in crisis situations, now having to turn to their EAP. It’s critical that the Government, the NHS and other healthcare stakeholders, understand the role the EAP industry has been playing in supporting mental health, providing immediate access to counselling and professional assessment for millions of people every year. So not a matter of an employee benefit affecting the few, but a significant role in dealing with an urgent and long-term issue for society.
“Given the limitations to NHS resources and both the scale and complexity of dealing with people’s mental wellbeing, more thought and discussion is needed around the place of EAPs — including how else they can help. Maybe there’s a need for extensions to EAP services, to ensure there’s provision for longer-term counselling programmes through to recovery. The EAP sector has coped this far with the giant swell of demand and more serious cases, through training and recruitment initiatives, more online services and apps. But neither employers nor the UK as a whole can afford to see EAPs become overwhelmed.”