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Why workers need preventative mental health care

Employee assistance programmes help people manage stress while building resilience.

By Eugene Farrell

The Covid-19 pandemic put employee well-being at the top of human resources (HR) priority lists: a healthy workforce was suddenly an imperative rather than a reason for introducing new perks. But despite the investment by employers, hard evidence on the impact of well-being spend continues to be scanty. If anything, problems with employee ill health – particularly when it comes to stress and mental well-being – have become part of the “new normal”.

What we do have is evidence from the past few years of the use of employee assistance programmes (EAPs), available to around half of the UK workforce. According to Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) data from more than 3,000 employers, the pandemic led to a huge spike in the use of these schemes, providing examples of what happens when more employees get help.

The association’s Financial Returns on EAPs: the Pandemic Effect 2022 report estimated that around 347,000 additional employees turned to support from an EAP between October 2020 and October 2021 compared with previous years. For employers this also meant an increased return on investment (ROI), up to £8 per £1 spent (compared with £7.27 in the previous year’s data). Returns come from direct cost savings due to reduced health insurance claims, and indirectly through lower sickness absence and improved productivity and performance.

Behind the numbers are some painful human stories. EAP providers universally have reported that the average call from an employee now involves more complexity; there are more people with multiple issues to deal with, often combining work, relationships and mental health. In turn, the demand for multiple sessions of counselling has grown. And this is where EAPs can deliver their benefits for both employees and their workplaces: by being holistic and dealing with that complexity.

Through the Covid-19 crisis, employees didn’t have to depend on overstretched NHS services or physically going into a GP surgery. They could get immediate access to a professional who was able to help unpick bundles of issues (because so often mental ill health comes from a tangle of work stress, financial worries and their impact on both home and work relationships), discuss and signpost sources of practical help and provide a route to counselling in the short term.

Most importantly, EAP services aren’t solely there to help people deal with ill health but to catch situations early – pre-empting stress, anxiety and depression. The focus is on building resilience among employees – the ability to bounce back from adversity, to keep going, to adapt and overcome – as a foundation of organisational resilience.

The lesson from the data on usage and ROI has been that businesses benefit from making a full commitment to mental well-being. Awareness campaigns and offering an EAP helpline as a last resort doesn’t lead to the necessary change in attitudes and behaviours; employees need to feel able to ask for help more often, as a form of preventive healthcare. Employers should be engaging with their EAP, making sure promotions are proactive and targeted by benchmarking usage and impact, and making use of well-being data for management reporting.

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