Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are employer-sponsored benefit programs designed to improve productivity by helping employees to identify and resolve personal concerns. Most EAPs employ mental health professionals (usually on a contract basis) to provide confidential counseling and referral services to workers who are experiencing personal problems that interfere with their work attendance or productivity. For example, an EAP might help employees to resolve problems such as drug or alcohol abuse, emotional distress, child or elder care issues, anxiety, marital or family relationship concerns, emotional distress, depression, or financial difficulties. Employees may seek help on a voluntary, confidential basis, or may be referred by a supervisor who suspects that declining job performance is being caused by personal problems.
Companies that implement EAPs have documented improvements in worker health, functioning, productivity, and performance. They also have seen significant reductions in absenteeism, medical benefits costs, disability and worker's compensation claims, workplace accidents, and employee turnover. Surveys indicate that between 50 and 80 percent of large companies offer EAPs. The potential payoff of an EAP is evidenced by a study which found that every dollar spent on an EAP returned an estimated $3-$5 to the company in reduced absenteeism and greater productivity. "Divorce, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, care-giving for a disabled relative, and uncontrolled gambling can all cause employee disabilities and absences that exact a high workplace toll," wrote Kevin M. Quinley in Compensation and Benefits Report. "Addressing these problems—even if they are rooted in nonoccupational causes—can boost employee productivity and curb disability costs" (2003).
EAPs are often instituted as part of an employee wellness program. Employee wellness is a relatively new human resource management focus that seeks to eliminate certain debilitating health problems (e.g., cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems, hypertension) that can be caused by poor lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, obesity, stress). Stress, for instance, is being called the fastest-growing occupational disease in the United States by some experts. Excessive amounts of stress can have debilitating health effects, leading to problems like ulcers, colitis, hypertension, headaches, lower back pain, and cardiac conditions. Stressed workers may perform poorly, quit their jobs, suffer low morale, generate conflicts among coworkers, miss work, or exhibit indifference toward coworkers and customers. These stress-induced outcomes cost U.S. businesses somewhere between $150 and $300 billion per year.
Lifestyle-related health problems have become quite prevalent: cancer, heart, and respiratory illnesses alone account for 55.5 percent of all hospital claims, and they can cause workplace problems such as absenteeism, turnover, lost productivity, and increased medical costs. For instance, people who have high blood pressure are 68 percent more likely than others to have medical claims of more than $5,000 per year, and the cost of medical claims for smokers is 18 percent higher than it is for nonsmokers.
To combat these problems, employee wellness programs provide employees with physical fitness facilities, on-site health screenings, and programs to help them quit smoking, manage stress, and improve nutritional habits. The employee wellness program at Apple Computer offers fitness facilities, health education, and preventative medicine that includes:
Employee wellness programs can be quite effective. Research indicates that participation in a wellness program increases productivity and reduces both absenteeism and turnover. A study conducted at Mesa Petroleum, for example, found that the productivity difference between participants and non-participants amounted to $700,000 in the program's first year and $1.3 million in the second.
If they are to work, wellness programs must successfully enlist "high-risk" individuals—those in greatest need of the program. Unfortunately, most employees who participate in wellness programs exhibit fewer risk factors to begin with, while employees at high-risk tend to stay away. Because at-risk individuals do not seek help, many employee wellness programs fail to meet their objectives.
Employers must, then, find some way to motivate high-risk individuals to participate. Some companies offer incentives such as cash bonuses to individuals who participate, while others impose certain penalties on non-participants. Examples of penalties include higher insurance premiums and deductibles.
EAPs also play an important role in the prevention of and intervention in workplace violence incidents. Workplace violence and crisis intervention have received increased emphasis in EAPs since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Not only can counselors help employees to deal with the emotional impact of crises, they also can provide ongoing preparedness training for companies.
Many EAPs also provide management consultation services. In such cases, a supervisor may request assistance in dealing with a problem employee. EAP counselors might help the supervisor develop initiatives to change the employee's disruptive behavior. "Having an EAP sends a message to employees that the employer cares," noted Quinley. "Just knowing that can be a powerful incentive and hasten an employee's desire to return to work" (2003).
Lawrence S. Kleiman
Revised by Laurie Hillstrom
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Erfurt, J.C., A. Foote, and M.A. Heirich. "The Cost-Effectiveness of Worksite Wellness Programs for Hypertension Control, Weight Loss, Smoking Cessation, and Exercise." Personnel Psychology 45, no. 1 (1992): 5–27.
Kleiman, Lawrence S. Human Resource Management: A Managerial Tool for Competitive Advantage. 2nd ed. Cincinnati: South-Western College Publishing, 2000.
Mannion, Lawrence P. Employee Assistance Programs: What Works and What Doesn't. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Quinley, Kevin M. "EAPs: A Benefit That Can Trim Your Disability and Absenteeism Costs." Compensation & Benefits Report 17, no. 2 (February 2003): 6.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Occupational Health Service. "Documenting the Value of Employee Assistance Programs." Available from < http://www.foh.dhhs.gov >.
Van Den Bergh, Nan, ed. Emerging Trends for EAPs in the 21st Century. New York: Haworth Press, 2000.