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Why the EAP is an important Brexit safety net for employees

Eugene Farrell

Despite being part of the benefits offering for more than 30 years, Employee Assistance Programmes are still not being used to their full potential when it comes to addressing issues of mental wellbeing. Eugene Farrell, head of the UK’s Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), explains why Brexit is the opportunity to re-position the EAP. Eugene Farrell Head of the UK’s Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and Mental Health Lead, AXA PPP Healthcare.

Brexit has meant a working population under even greater stress. A London School of Economics study has pointed to an escalation in numbers of people in the UK reporting mental health problems since the 2016 Brexit ballot. A poll by YouGov suggests the EU withdrawal situation has led to mental health concerns among a third of voters; another that the increase in uncertainty has lead to an increase in antidepressant prescribing.

The unsettling political situation has only exacerbated feelings of insecurity, with particular consequences for employee attitudes to the future of their finances – something that is affecting staff even more fundamentally. A report in 2018 by the Centre for Economics and Business Research claimed UK workers take four million days off a year because of their financial worries, costing £1.56 billion.

All the different strains affect mental and physical wellbeing, levels of absence,  engagement and performance at work; testing the extent and nature of support services provided by HR. And it’s not a matter of availability – there’s clearly more attention being paid to workplace wellbeing than ever before – but whether they are services that are going to have an impact, that employees feel comfortable in using.

According to a Business in the Community study in 2018, 61% of employees have experienced mental health issues as result of work; only 54% felt comfortable talking in the workplace about mental health. 38% of employees wouldn’t be open about a mental health issue because of concerns about how it would affect their career (Mental Health Foundation, 2018 study). An Aegon report has said 45% of employers feel they would be intruding in their employees’ lives if they approached them about their financial concerns, while nearly half feel it isn’t their placed to get involved.

At the frontline is the Employee Assistance Programme – confidential support services, on demand 24/7, when they are needed, and free of charge to employees. The 2013 Market Watch survey for the EAP industry concluded that 47% of the UK workforce, approximately 13.79 million people, were covered by an EAP. Crucially, what differentiates the EAP from any other form of mental health counselling, coaching or private counselling is that it’s proactive in helping people to anticipate and deal with problems early on. 

With many employers, however, the EAP continues to be positioned as the last resort. EAP market research commissioned by UK EAPA and published by The Work Foundation in 2016 concluded that employers are missing opportunities to do more with their EAPs and take advantage of the expertise available through their provider.

EAP services shouldn’t just be about crises, a way to cope when there’s some form of breakdown, but be more of an everyday life support for everyday hassles. Brexit is an example of the need for a release valve for non-specific anxieties, emerging concerns, rather than concrete problems that have already taken a hold and started to affect wellbeing.

HR need to be re-positioning the EAP as a critical part of an early prevention strategy, the way to pre-empt the full range of people issues, encouraging staff to open up and talk early before an issue becomes a crisis. 

For this to happen, employers need to be aware of what their provider offers or could be offering, any restrictions. There’s no such thing as a standard EAP. The ‘all-inclusive’ EAP service, for example, also includes access to focused counselling, which can act as a valuable short-term solution to concerns, particularly in a context of long waiting times within the NHS system. Alternatively, EAP providers also offer a telephone and online services model: a reduced cost alongside the benefits of offering staff more anonymity.

An EAP can also be the focal point for introducing a visible culture of proactive support, the one-stop-shop for access to a much wider range of specialist, added value services. This might include, Critical Incident and Post Trauma support; consultancy services on developing a health and wellbeing strategy, workplace mediation, specialist psychologist assessments, specialist whistleblowing helplines; access to specialist therapeutic interventions such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitising and Reprogramming (EMDR), Trauma Focussed CBT; training workshops on a wide range of mental health and wellbeing topics and on-site promotional support.

The biggest challenge for HR in this area continues to be awareness. Another finding from the 2016 EAP research was that low-level promotion and over-reliance on line managers to flag up EAPs was limiting use of services for anything other than situations which had already reached a serious stage – and as a result, the value and effectiveness of the service to the organisation is limited. The EAP needs to be promoted in the right way – as an everyday service for everyone not the ‘crisis line’ for the few – and made everyday visible. Emotional and psychological wellbeing needs to become something we all keep an eye on, just as we do with physical health, and an EAP is the most accessible, discreet and professional way to do so.

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