Have EAPs Reached a Tipping Point?

After answering the call during Covid-19 crisis, programs geared toward wellbeing and mental health are evolving again

Have EAPs Reached a Tipping Point?

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) have been around since the late 1930s. They were established based on programs that dealt with occupational alcoholism. They’ve since evolved to include acute, short-term services such as financial and legal help and counseling. Like any product or service, EAPs are going through another evolution; this time to reflect both the shift to digital work environments and the behavioural changes resulting from the growing use of mobile applications to better address the needs of today’s employees.

According to a 2022 study by Gallup, employees have been experiencing notable exhaustion and stress   resulting from the pandemic, which has led to burnout as being the biggest issue facing employers in 2022. In addition, a joint study by the Conference Board of Canada and TELUS Health found a gap of up to 83 per cent between the benefits Canadian employees have and the benefits they want from their employers. Taken together, there’s a clear opportunity and necessity for employers to provide health and wellness solutions that will fill this gap and meet the needs of their employees.

To look at how next-generation EAPs can address these needs and help with overall organizational and employee health, let’s breakdown the current state of EAPs, where they’re headed, and what a supportive employee program looks like.

Let’s start with our question: Have EAPs reached a tipping point?

Why are we asking this question? And why now?

A 2021 study by Beyer and Dyme found that traditional EAPs are used extensively for mental health support ‒ more than any other resource, in fact. Mental health needs have been on the rise for over a decade with resources unable to keep up with the demand. It was no surprise that the pandemic challenged the fabric of our healthcare systems. It exposed the limited capacity of society to manage the mental health needs of its citizens under the duress of isolation, stress, fear, and continuous changes on a daily basis.

Under this context and the lessons learned, the question, ‘have EAPs reached a tipping point’ highlights the ability of traditional providers to adapt and new players to design evolved solutions to answer the call, disrupt the status quo, and bring forth an integrated employee well-being solution.

So, have EAPs reached a tipping point?

Today, digital technologies and telemedicine are transforming the traditional EAP from episodic employee support to a holistic and personalized wellbeing solution. They’ve evolved to include new features such as flexible mental healthcare solutions, access to primary care, health risk assessments, a library of dynamic content, peer support, well-being challenges, and employee rewards all rolled into a single access point. It’s modular, customizable, effective, and further evolving to provide a true ‘one-door in’ to employee well-being.

If it’s evolving, what’s changed in recent years for both employees and employers?

The pandemic is definitely the biggest agent of change over the last three years. COVID-19 exposed the gaps in our support systems across the board, driving increased demand for services for mental health and psychosocial needs. Complexity and other existing medical conditions such as substance use, underlying anxiety disorders, and isolation became factors that challenged the traditional support systems built into EAPs.

What can companies do to address these changes?

Organizations have a variety of solutions available. It can be difficult to navigate all of the options and run your business at the same time, but here are some steps to help guide the process:

  • Step 1: Take stock of what you already have in regards to employee benefits and resources today and identify gaps.
  • Step 2: Survey your employees on what their current needs are. Do they align with what’s presently available?
  • Step 3: If they don’t align, reach out to health partners, contact a broker or consultant, or even consider going to RFP.
  • Step 4: Choose a health partner and communicate it constantly to your employees.

It’s important to keep in mind that a good health partner will support and help guide your internal communications strategy.

The key to a successful program is to validate with your employees what matters most to them. When evaluating solutions, be certain to select a health partner that is open to adjusting to and supporting your needs as they evolve with trends in the market.

What do the components of an evolved employee and family wellness program look like?

A personalized and modular program that evolves with the needs of both the employees and the business is the most important component for satisfaction. True tangible benefit comes from an established wellness program and an engaged employee base. The ability to add-on or switch out certain parts of the offering is a big advantage that technology has enabled.

Access to wellbeing content and solutions that both assess and provide immediate access to individualized, responsive, and validated solutions will keep employees aware and engaged in their own wellness journey.

Most of all, a guided discussion and experience whereby employees are provided with options that are available to them and most aligned with their needs and priorities, provides a holistic and personalized approach.

How do you envision the role of such programs when it comes to supporting employee mental health and wellbeing?

One major lesson learned from the pandemic is the enormous challenge to meet the need for scalable and accessible mental health support at large.

Meeting the needs for scalable mental health requires a stepped care approach using a portfolio of services that screen and evaluate and adapt to the severity and intensity of needs while matching services to respond in-kind. From mild and moderate to severe cases, the level of response, professionalism, interaction, frequency, and modality vary and can be managed with a mix of digital, virtual, and in-person solutions.

Our suite of employee wellness ser- vices ranges from virtual care and mental health solutions to in-person specialty services, occupational health, rewards and engagement solutions, and wellbeing content and seminars as well as a vast health benefits administration solution. Our nonlinear and adaptive model allows for escalation of care when necessary and step-down care options when ready.

We often hear from employers that they don’t see high engagement from their employees with their EAPs. What can employers do to change this?

Having a toolbox available is definitely a necessary step for engagement. However, it’s culture that drives consistent and subsequent return on investment (ROI). Tools without strategy and awareness will remain underutilized. As stated by Dr. Mark Attridge in his recent report ‘Update on EAP Market and Research,’ EAP effectiveness is ultimately up to the employer. What do they want their EAP to be? Do they want to maximize it? It’s the company goal that’s the bigger issue.

Training managers on how to coach employees towards available resources and an effective communications strategy to help create and maintain engagement and utilization have been proven to reduce absenteeism and increase presenteeism according to a study by Hargrave et al.

Another concern among employers is the return on investment. Is this still the right approach when evaluating programs like these?

We know ROI is top of mind for employers when evaluating employee wellness programs that include EAPs.

A 2019 study published by the Journal of Employee Assistance found that common complaints about low levels of EAP use from some employers and benefits brokers are actually not accurate from a purely ROI perspective.

It’s important to consider additional metrics when evaluating such programs. According to a study that looked at work-place outcomes of EAP usage published in the International Journal of Health & Productivity, it was found that for employees who used an EAP:

  • absenteeism dropped 27 per cent
  • engagement at work grew eight per cent
  • life satisfaction grew 22 per cent

These are definitely some numbers to get behind that reflect the more complete picture of the benefits of investing in employee wellness and overall business performance.


Roee Ben-Eli is RN and Director of Strategic Programs at TELUS Health.