Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are key to improving employee wellbeing here in the UK, but they have yet to become a staple for businesses and a well-known resource for employees, unlike organisations on the other side of the Atlantic.

In America EAPs are seen as a paramount employee benefit and a high-priority management tool, but some British employers are yet to realise the full potential of their EAP, seeing them as a HR box-ticking exercise or something that’s nice to have.

Different approaches

Most EAPs in America date back to around the 1950s where they started as in-house alcoholism programmes, but it was around the mid-1970s, when EAPs shifted from being in-house to external and businesses in their own right. It was a number of years later before the UK started to pick-up on the concept of EAPs, and our EAP market is still playing catch-up with the Americans.

Remember though, that America had a tremendous head start. The USA is at a point where businesses employ someone full-time solely to manage their EAP. In the UK the EAP tends to be something that is overseen by a HR officer or manager.

Another factor is that in the US employees either pay for private healthcare or they have insurance, so it’s their prerogative to make sure they go to the GP as little as possible and take preventative measures, including using their EAP. EAPs are also widely used for enquiries regarding health insurance, something our system of free healthcare and the NHS doesn’t require us to think about.

There’s still a much needed use for EAPs here in the UK. Stress levels are continually rising, work/life balance becomes difficult, rents are increasing and family life might not be going according to plan. There are many issues which may just need a phone call to help. EAPs can offer clinical advice such as to relieve stress and help to make a plan to move forward, or non-clinical, such as advice on pensions or your legal rights.

The future of EAPs

We need to stop buying in EAPs to just leave them on the shelf to gather dust. We need to really urge employers to encourage and educate staff to start using this free, confidential service.

To make sure this happens you need to let employees know what’s available to them. Make use of appraisals and return to work meetings to remind employees that the EAP is there and is free to use. The same for CEOs and senior managers too, as we shouldn’t forget that the EAP is for everyone in the business and their families.

Another way to increase the uptake of your EAP is to be proactive. Encourage managers to keep an eye on behavioural change within their respective teams and to look for signs of stress and mental health problems. Management referral is a vital feature of the EAP because sometimes the person who needs support is the last to realise it.

For example if a line manager notices a member of staff needs support they can take the initiative with early intervention by flagging the concern to HR, and then HR can formally refer the team member to their EAP instead of waiting for them to call for help.

Making sure employees make use of the EAP can reduce work-related stress, improve attendance management and increase productivity and can help to provide a happier and healthier workforce.

Following in the footsteps of the US would not only be a smart move for employers, but one that shows compassion too. One day, I would like to see us sporting our own dedicated EAP managers in the HR department.