The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Reassessing Your Institution’s EAP: Steps for HR Pros to Increase Awareness and Accessibility

May is Mental Health Month. Throughout the month, be sure to join the Connect discussion in the General Discussion group to discuss challenges and successes, as well as pose questions and offer advice to higher ed HR peers on the topic of mental health. A Zoom discussion will also take place mid-May. Stay tuned for the link to be posted in the Connect discussion. 

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are nothing new. In fact, 97 percent of large employers offer an EAP as part of their benefits package. Yet, the utilization rate of these programs is abysmally low, clocking in at an average of less than 5 percent even as concerns around mental health continue to grow. EAPs should be a key resource for struggling employees, so why isn’t anybody using them?

Lack of Awareness

Lack of awareness, on multiple levels, plays a large role in the underutilization of EAPs. Usually, employees are introduced to their organization’s EAP and other benefits during their onboarding process. However, the deluge of information new employees are exposed to during this time can easily wash out any memory of an EAP mention.

In addition, there’s a general lack of awareness as to how EAPs function. People may form their own incorrect assumptions, such as thinking that participating in an EAP will incur an immediate cost or that EAP use will be reflected on performance evaluations, which keep them from accessing this benefit.

Distrust and Stigma

From grief counseling to connecting employees to legal resources, the situations that EAPs are designed to provide support for can often be deeply personal. Because of this, some employees may be concerned that personal details or other information related to their EAP access will be shared with their employers, since the EAP is an employer-sponsored program. Others may be hesitant to interact with EAPs due to the stigma surrounding mental and behavioral health topics.

Accessibility

If employees are aware and comfortable accessing their organization’s EAP, the next challenge they often have to surmount is the myriad steps required to connect with the resources and services they need. Many of the individuals who would benefit from using an EAP are already operating under higher levels of stress and may be more fatigued than their peers. This can mean that these employees are less likely to have the energy needed to engage with extended processes, even when they’re the ones who need it most.

How Can HR help?

It might feel like the issues listed above are too big for one department — and in some cases one person — to overcome, but there are steps you can take to help.

Start by looking at your organization’s EAP from an employee perspective and map out the steps someone needs to take to access services. Ask questions along the way such as: How many steps are there? How do employees learn more about their EAP? What options are there for contacting someone? Might the hours of service be prohibitive to some? Are the services provided meeting a variety of needs? Note too where you notice the potential for confusion or frustration within the process and remember that if something can be simplified, it should be simplified!

Once you’ve reassessed the EAP process, take some time to examine how your campus is talking about mental health in general. While communication about the EAP is necessary for program awareness, by itself it’s not enough to improve utilization. Double down on efforts to reduce stigma around mental health and mental illness. Creating a culture where employees feel safe to talk about their mental health and welcome to bring their whole selves to the table has myriad benefits — only one of which is improving EAP usage.

Related resources:

Mental Health Toolkit (CUPA-HR members-only resource)

Destigmatizing Mental Health on Campus: What Can HR Do (Higher Ed HR Magazine)

Right Direction – Free Turnkey Resources for Organizations to Address Mental Health in the Workplace