What is an EAP? - A women working behind laptop

What is an EAP?

Amelia Wilcox
March 28, 2023
October 9, 2022

Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, can be a great resource when employees are struggling with stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. But what exactly are EAPs, how do they help companies and staff, and where did EAPs come from? Read on to learn what an EAP is and the history of EAPs.    

The History of EAPs

EAPs (Employee Assistant Programs) were initially created for addiction assistance (i.e. alcohol and drug abuse) in the late 1930s. Alcohol was a huge part of American culture, even in the workplace. Issues began to arise when alcohol-impaired worker incidents grew. EAPs were then developed to support employees experiencing alcoholism or other alcohol-related issues. While the methods have hugely improved over the years, (the original EAPs were enacted as pledges to abstain from substances! We’ve come a long way since then.) EAPs still have the same goals: to improve employee productivity and focus by helping employees heal and build better habits.

In the 1970s, the National Council of Alcoholism (NCA) helped start the conversation on EAPs and spread the programs nationally. Over time, they’ve expanded to addressing the needs of employee’s families. They’ve also broadened to support employee social, emotional, legal, and financial health in addition to substance abuse.

In Recent Years

EAPs have now morphed into things like wellness apps to virtual wellness platforms. There are now so many more ways to access mental health care confidentially.

97% of large companies with over 5,000 employees use an EAP (Employee Assistance Program). Yet, the traditional EAPs have an average utilization rate of around 5.5%.

Crisis events such as September 11 have caused the need for EAPs to rise. Since 9/11 more and more employees were reported experiencing a rise in PTSD, as well as occupational anxiety and depression. Since COVID and all of the stress it caused—health worries, layoffs, and more—mental health has only becoming more important in the workplace. These types of tragedies and stressors aren’t something we’re necessarily equipped to deal with. Sometimes, we need someone to step in and help us process and heal.

Beyond those types of specific events, stress and anxiety are on the rise across America. Our work culture focuses on performance, competition, and perfection, which leads to stressed employees. This kind of stress, if not addressed, can cause a lot of damage. That’s why EAPs are still so important in our work environment.

Today, EAPs are often paired with additional wellness benefits that offer meditation, fitness classes, and more.

The Benefits of EAPs

In addition to new world events, stressors at work are constantly rising. More Americans are burnt out and extremely stressed about work than ever before. 75% of employees have felt burnt out, yet 36% think their employer does nothing to address it.

A work culture that focuses on performance, competition, and perfection leads to poor work-life balance. Some even place their identity on their work. Many employees end up overworking. As a result, employee mental health suffers.

With half of adults suffering from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives, the demand for mental health support has no signs of letting up. Today, mental health care costs the American economy more than heart disease.

Employee assistance programs cover a wide range of services, and address all sorts of issues:

  • Direct access to counselors
  • Counselors with experience in your particular problems
  • Confidentiality; EAPs are confidential by law and do not affect employee evaluation
  • Mental and emotional care available at no cost to the employee
  • Treatment can be on-site virtually or in-person
  • Improved productivity and work-life balance of employees

What type of issues do EAP counselors assist with?

EAP counselors can support employees with a variety of challenges:

  • Substance abuse
  • Occupational stress and anxiety
  • Emotional distress and depression
  • Major life events
  • Nutrition and health coaching and concerns
  • Financial or non-work-related concerns
  • Relationship issues

The Problem with Traditional EAPs

EAPs are more critical than ever. But a typical EAP with just 5.5% utilization won’t cut it.

Even with widespread EAP adoption, half of employees never seek the mental health support they need.

Why? The stigma around mental health and barriers to care.

These include obstacles like:

  • Cost of mental health care
  • Transportation issues
  • Lack of therapist availability
  • The belief that therapy will not help
  • The stigma around counseling and mental illnesses
  • Not wanting to talk to a therapist

An EAP may help address cost and transportation issues, but most EAPs have gatekeepers that make it difficult to talk to a therapist in the first place, or force employees to switch providers frequently. It can take months to meet with an EAP therapist, discouraging many from receiving care.

Not everyone wants to talk to an EAP therapist. Some may want to talk to a financial advisor—someone that can actively help them get their finances in order. Some people may want to speak with a fitness coach that can help them build a custom workout routine.

EAPs can still be a valuable part of employee benefits packages, but they generally do not offer the most comprehensive or simplest solution to wellbeing.

For more on EAPs, check out: Why EAPs Aren’t Enough

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By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take the place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Amelia Wilcox
Amelia Wilcox
Amelia Wilcox is the Founder and CEO of Nivati, a leader in corporate massage and employee mental health support since 2010. Her high-growth B2B company provides employee stress management tools that arm businesses with actionable data and positive employee experiences to improve wellbeing, boost morale, and increase engagement. Amelia has exponentially grown her company from a solo living-room service business to an international technology brand.