Employee assistance programs are getting a makeover, and in turn are seeking to significantly boost the number of workers they help with everyday problems that can affect job performance.
"Employers are very concerned about the stress in employees' lives," says Stella Antonakis, senior associate of total health management at Mercer. "They are working closely with employee assistance program vendors to find support for their employees."
For decades, employee assistance programs, or EAPs, have been a resource to help workers deal with substance-abuse problems on a confidential basis. But recently EAPs have evolved to integrate with wellness and work-life services programs. Meanwhile, EAPs are trying to boost their low usage rates and become more relevant to workers' everyday lives, experts say.
"The EAP is no longer just about substance abuse," Antonakis says. "It's everything under the umbrella of behavioral health and mental health."
An economy still struggling to fully recover has resulted in a leaner workforce at many companies, and those workers are expected to be more efficient and productive than ever before. Yet, people's daily stresses are greater than ever. That's where EAPs are finding their niche.
"Data shows that people spend 10 to 40 percent of their time at work doing personal things," says Richard Chaifetz, founder, chairman and CEO of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based EAP. "We can have a big impact on employee focus at work."
By linking work-life issues to mental health services, EAPs are seeking to reach more workers. For instance, a worker might call an EAP looking for a referral for a tax accountant or a divorce lawyer and end up getting services to deal with anxiety or depression—all of which are taking a toll on work performance.
EAPs can help with everything from planning a wedding, finding affordable child care, refinancing a mortgage, sorting through health care costs to hiring a plumber.
At least half of the calls today involve a financial issue, says Edward Trieber, CEO of Harris, Rothenberg International, a New York-based EAP.
"The calls are more complicated than they used to be," Trieber says. EAPs also can be a doorway to other employment benefits, such as discounted gym memberships or a smoking cessation program, he adds.
ComPsych reported that in 2011, 19 percent of calls about work-life issues were about child care, while 14 percent concerned elder care. Another 28 percent of calls involved moving and 10 percent focused on health care.
Management training is also a relatively new component to EAPs. As employers cut in-person management training amid a down economy, EAPs are offering Web-based or telephonic troubleshooting to deal with problem employees. Harris, Rothenberg has a team of management consultants to assist with problem employees, such as those texting or using a mobile phone for social networking during work hours, Trieber says. "It's one of our fastest growing services."
But Mercer's Antonakis says most employers don't use EAP management training services.
"Typically it takes a very problematic employee or a crisis for a manager to reach out to the EAP," she says.
EAPs are relatively cheap, costing about $1 to $3 per employee per month, and the vast majority of large and midsize companies have an EAP as part of their employee benefits plans.
Despite the smorgasbord of new services, few employees use their EAP, studies show. The national average for utilization has hovered around 3 percent for years, Antonakis says.
"It's not a healthy utilization level," she says. "As a whole, I don't see employers using all the services in an EAP. I think we have a long way to go. Vendors I talk to say employers aren't using the EAP training sessions."
Education institutions, health care settings and other industries where mental health treatment is more accepted tend to have higher EAP utilization rates, she says.
Boosting utilization requires greater communication with employees. Typically, employees are reminded about the EAP during the annual open-enrollment period for benefits, Antonakis says.
But that's not the best time because it is easily forgotten among all the other information workers get during this busy period.
"Choices in health care benefits have become very complicated," she says.
Trieber countered that utilization is actually good if you are trying to reach the workers that need services most.
"At any one time, about 10 to 15 percent of the population has a mental health issue," Trieber says. With typical EAP usage between 2 percent and 6 percent, a quarter to a third of people who need help are getting it, he says.
ComPsych's Chaifetz says utilization rates go up further when calls for legal or financial services are tallied.
"Most people are not doing well in this economy," Chaifetz says. "We are seeing an unprecedented need for financial and legal services."
The EAP sector has gone through a period of consolidation in the past five years. In 2009, Aetna Inc. purchased Horizon Behavioral Services, of Lewisville, Texas, for $70 million. That same year, UnitedHealth Group's subsidiary OptumHealth purchased PPC Worldwide of St. Louis, for an undisclosed amount.
EAP providers say that their services are becoming more valuable as employers seek inexpensive and proven ways to help their workers be happier and more productive.
"We're kind of like the corporate 'Ghostbusters,' " Trieber says. "Who you gonna call?"
Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. To comment, email email@example.com.