How culturally competent is your EAP?

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Cultural competence is loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from diverse cultures or belief systems — and has always been an important consideration for mental health professionals. But today, and perhaps more than ever before, it’s imperative that service providers who support employee mental health, such as employee assistance programs or EAPs, are also providing care that is built on a solid foundation of cultural competence.

For EAPs, delivering culturally competent care means understanding the needs of a diverse workforce and ensuring that the elements of all services meet those needs strategically. Beyond promotion, there are three key areas where the presence — or lack — of cultural competence can either make or break the individual EAP user journey or the success of an organizational intervention: the EAP referral process, management consultation and employee and supervisor training.

EAP referral process
For years, too many EAPs have overlooked the importance of cultural fit when assisting participants with referrals for counseling. The old reasoning was that, as long as a provider has the required clinical specialty, that should be enough to constitute an “appropriate” referral. Not only is that type of thinking outdated, it can actually create unnecessary barriers to access when employees are seeking help for a personal or work-related issue.

Many EAP participants, especially those connecting with care for the first time, see working with a counselor whose background seems drastically different from their own as a deterrent from ever getting started in the first place. That’s why it’s important for EAP providers to go beyond criteria like clinical specialty, location and treatment modality (all of which are still noteworthy) when making referrals — and that providers also meet the cultural needs and preferences of each participant. By inviting providers to share their personal background and experience such as language, religion, race, age, gender, LGBTQ+, military service and more, EAPs can tailor referrals more closely to the personal preferences of each individual participant.

Management consultation
Similarly, it’s important that consultation to managers and supervisors is delivered in a culturally competent manner. Today’s front-line supervisors are responsible for ensuring the safety and productivity of a workforce that is more diverse than ever. While diversity is one of the greatest assets any organization can offer, it can also periodically pose challenges for managers when employees with very different backgrounds, experiences or viewpoints come together in a climate of social, political or civil unrest. Navigating these scenarios effectively can turn potential conflict into opportunities for greater respect, understanding and collaboration. All of this is possible — but only when EAPs provide managers and supervisors with effective, culturally competent consultation and proven strategies for success.

Employee and supervisor training
Finally, don’t overlook the value of training and other organizational services offered by most EAPs to support an organization’s own internal programs and initiatives. Many EAPs have developed a robust catalog of onsite and virtual organizational development modules, support groups, debriefings and discussion groups for employees, managers and organizational leadership on a variety of timely topics related to diversity and social or political unrest. Seminars such as “Promoting Healthy Conversations About Race,” “Embracing Diversity” and “Leading During Times of Crisis” can help employees and managers develop and refine the “soft skills” that are often a critical but overlooked factor in a team’s success.

EAPs that take a culturally competent approach to developing and refining key elements of the program will serve diverse employers more effectively and, ultimately, drive more value to the program. These providers will engage more employees and also offer expert consultation to management, as well as to the organization’s leaders. That’s why it’s important to consider more than just promotion and communication when assessing the cultural competency of an EAP. To be most effective, all services and features of the program can and should be built upon a solid foundation of cultural competence.

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EAPs Diversity and equality Mental health Mental health benefits