Employee assistance programmes and mental health

Putting in place practical support for the mental wellbeing of employees does not require business leaders or line managers to turn counsellor or therapist. Trained professionals deliver these services, and many businesses provide employee access to them using an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

According to the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA):

“An EAP provides managed access to a range of experts and mental health professionals, accessed through a single entry point and via a structured assessment of need, that will provide support, guidance and information on a wide range of work related and personal issues that can affect work performance and attendance.”

An EAP is a support resource which is always available – an employer does not have to scramble for a response on a case by case basis. EAP providers will also point out that they allow employees to access counselling and therapy services much quicker than the NHS.

Although we are discussing EAP’s with a focus on mental wellbeing, the full offer of most EAP’s will include support for employees experiencing other issues or life events (examples include bereavement, financial worries and domestic violence). Most companies would find it prohibitively expensive to buy these services separately.

Operating an EAP makes a significant contribution to covering off an employer’s statutory duty to protect employees from work-related stress. An EAP is also an option for line managers when dealing with troubled employees.

The anonymous data generated by an EAP can offer valuable insights – the first thing many companies learn from their new EAP is that stress and mental health issues are more pervasive than management may have previously thought.

EAPs are treated as a business expense if operated strictly to deal with work-related issues among employees.

Types of Employee Assistance Programme

EAP’s follow three basic models – External, Internal and Embedded.

What most people think of as an EAP is the external model. This operates separately from the client organisation, which proponents says makes employees more likely to use the service since there is no risk of being seen doing so by colleagues. The external model is the basis on which a full-service EAP operates. An employee accessing the EAP is initially assessed and then passed to a counsellor or psychologist. The therapeutic intervention is conducted through phone or online sessions, which are limited in number. A full-service, external EAP will provide its own promotional material – one reason why full-service EAPs tend to generate the best take-up by employees.

An internal EAP, located within the client organisation, has the advantage of intimate knowledge of how the organisation operates. Practitioners within an internal EAP provide direct counselling and may also act as mediators or advisors to management. The downside is that some employees may regard the service as a part of the management structure, and avoid it.

The embedded EAP is provided free as part of a larger package, such as a company health insurance scheme. Available services are likely to be fewer – usually focused on a telephone helpline. There can be issues with uptake since an embedded EAP is rarely promoted as intensively as the external and internal alternatives.

How much does an EAP cost?

The cost of an EAP is based on a per capita value derived from multiplying the number of employees by anticipated service use. According to the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association, the typical cost of an EAP is around £5 – £15 per head depending on what services are included and the maximum number of face-to-face visits available per member.

EAP Return On Investment

Research suggests that only nine percent of HR managers have tried to measure EAP ROI. The most quoted reason for not investigating EAP ROI was lack of interest from senior management. This situation is certain to change because:

  • Recent research has confirmed the high cost of poor mental wellbeing to business and UK productivity.
  • The profile of mental health at work is rising significantly. More and more senior executives are asking “How are we performing?”

The UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association has an obvious interest in confirming the benefits of EAPs, and in October 2018 launched an EAP Calculator which show that for 102 different companies with a range of 5-100 employees, the average cost of an EAP per employee is £15.05 with a return on investment of £7.97 per pound spent. This value is arrived at by applying the reduction in absence which an EAP typically achieves (3-16 percent) to the cost of absence as stated by the Office for National Statistics. The influential Thriving At Work study (2017) in the UK stated a return of £4.20 on every £1 spent by UK companies on mental health interventions (not just EAPs).

What services does an EAP provide?

The core of any EAP is counselling employees about issues related to work. Many EAPs will also help an employee who has suffered a traumatic event. This focus on the individual means that the most comprehensive EAPs also offer coaching and mentoring services. Other additional services can include:

  • Money advice and debt management
  • Child and eldercare information services
  • Legal information and guidance
  • Information on emotional, work-life and workplace issues
  • Management referrals and support

Implementing an EAP

The most important factor in the implementation stage is the quality of account management from the EAP provider. It is the responsibility of the provider account manager to engage with stakeholders at the client company to agree the range of services and who can use them. The provider account manager will also be responsible for reporting on service usage and using analytical tools to draw out patterns of interest to the management of the client company. An embedded EAP is usually a more ‘off the peg’ proposition with a more limited account management requirement.


IoD members can access a wide range of template policies which cover off employer obligations in the workplace – contact the IoD Business Information Service (BIS).

Issues relating to employment law can also be discussed with lawyers in the IoD Directors Advisory Service.

The IoD has more resources on mental health in the workplace available at the IoD Mental Health Hub.

The IoD is participating in a major collection of mental health resources available through the charity Mind: Mental Health Gateway

This factsheet is part of a content collection devoted to supporting business leaders on mental health issues:

Making a start – What is mental wellbeing at work?

Business leaders and their mental health

A mental health policy for your company

How to measure the mental health of your business

Mental health for SMEs

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