Having an employee assistance program is proven to make good business sense. EAPs are shown to improve a company’s bottom line by raising productivity, lowering absenteeism and reducing turnover at a minimal cost to the employer.

What’s more, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show employers save between $5 and $16 for each dollar invested in an EAP. No doubt, that’s a pretty good ROI.

Now imagine how much better that ROI would be if you had the inside scoop — from an EAP — on how to buy EAP services more effectively.

With a combined 50+ years working in the EAP industry, we have keen insight into how to be more prudent purchasers of EAP services. But before offering our recommendations, we think it’s important for buyers to understand a few of the challenges the EAP industry is facing.

First, the traditional EAP model resided in HR/personnel departments, with a labor-management framework. But with an increasing number of EAPs packaging their services using a business model, the field has suffered and EAPs are facing the ramifications of bare-bones pricing and services. Rather than competing on who is best at handling employee issues, vendors compete on price. And providers who work hard to deliver high quality services and superior client outcomes cannot bill their excess costs to anyone.

Dr. Dale A Masi, founder of Masi Research Consultants, which assists organizations with planning, designing and evaluating EAPs, believes another crisis facing the industry is the tendency of EAP services to be bundled and sold as a “free” throw-in with the purchase of another employee benefit, such as a group life or disability insurance plan. Most often, the free EAP merely provides access to a website, the ability to receive brief telephone support, and a non-customized referral for additional care.

Also see: "Anxiety overlooked workplace issue."

While the program may be promoted to employees when it’s launched, it quickly becomes lost in the collection of employee benefits and is rarely utilized. Even when an employee taps into the program, the level of phone or online intervention is likely too low to truly address the employee’s issues. Says Masi, “The EAP industry must link performance measurement to pricing if it is to counter the rise of ‘free’ EAPs, the ‘bundling’ of EA programs with employee benefits, and other practices that are causing quality to deteriorate.”

So, what information should be gathered in an RFP? While 85%-90% of program utilization is voluntary, typically as much as 15% of program utilization is attributed to company leadership through management consultations and job performance referrals where substantial cost benefit can be realized. But, to maximize that value, you must ask whether your prospective vendor includes some of the following 11 services:

1)     Does the EAP offer management consultations? Managers and supervisors often struggle with a difficult or troubled employee and are not sure what to do or are uncomfortable with taking corrective action. Management consultations provide those leaders with help, support and guidance.

2)     Does the EAP provide job performance referrals? Job performance referrals occur most often when an employee’s performance has deteriorated over a period of time — and further disciplinary action will likely result in termination. These referrals also happen after a grievous policy violation or a positive drug test result.

3)     What are the qualifications of the staff members doing intake? Be sure intakes are being done by master’s degree-trained counselors rather than customer service representatives.

4)     Do clients work with the same counselor throughout the course of their care? It’s important that callers can speak with the counselor they’ve worked with previously rather than just going into a phone queue waiting for the next available counselor.

5)     Are referrals verified for clinical appropriateness and affiliate availability? Many EAPs give callers a list of affiliates and direct them to make the phone calls and decide which one(s) to use. Yet someone who is depressed or facing a crisis isn’t able to successfully navigate that burden — nor should they have to. Affiliate availability should be checked and matched to client preference by the EAP.

6)     Are cases kept open until follow-up contact reveals the client is satisfied with their current situation? Counselors should make several calls — and if phone contact cannot be made, send letters — to make sure the client is satisfied with their referral and to determine if additional or other referrals are necessary.

7)     Is the EAP vendor collaborative? Dealing effectively with a difficult and/or emergent situation requires a vendor that is responsive, flexible and draws upon all its people and resources to help the employer in whatever way works best.

8)     Do you have a consistent account manager assigned to your company? Account managers serve as the liaison to manage all aspects of implementation and respond to any problems or concerns.

9)     Does the EAP offer in-person training? Having access to in-person training is important and the overall costs of offering it are incremental.

10)Is online training offered? Savvy employers regularly use online training services for employee development, corrective action, and as a starting point for important issues about a variety of workplace topics.

11)How does the EAP help promote the program to the workforce? EAPs are nothing and have little value without promotion to the workforce. Are promotional activities resulting in improved utilization? Activities should include posters, newsletters and flyers (printed and electronic), orientation sessions for employees and training for managers/supervisors.

The EAP business has changed radically over the years. And while the workplace has changed in profound ways, people are still the most important ingredient for a successful company. Employees and their dependents still struggle to successfully address personal problems that limit their ability to be productive at work. 

Also see: "EAP and wellness trends to watch in 2015."

Managers and supervisors still have the difficult challenge of identifying workplace behavior and performance issues that constrains an individual’s or a team’s success. A well-deployed and promoted EAP is an asset to the individual employee and his or her dependents, and a tremendous resource to an organization’s leadership.

Cohen, LCSW, CEAP and Heffernan, MS, CEAP, are the founders of Chicago-based ERS, a national provider of integrated Employee/Member Assistance Programs (EAP/MAP), comprehensive training and consultation services, work/life services and drug-free workplace policy development.

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