How you—and your employees—can get the most from your EFAP

Today’s employees are tasked with more demands at work and at home than ever before. According to Shepell•fgi’s case management system, in Canada, there has been a 50% increase in people accessing employee and family assistance program (EFAP) services over the past four years. This is a direct result of daily pressures: more stress in the workplace, financial strain, challenges in balancing home and work, and childcare and eldercare demands. Younger generations are also more open to asking for—and expecting—help. Employers are increasingly encouraging employees to use their EFAP to help them deal with these challenges, given the evidence of a tangible return on investment (ROI) through lower absenteeism rates and higher productivity.

It is not enough, however, to merely provide an EFAP. The key to achieving real ROI is to ensure that the services are valuable to the particular employee population and that employees actually use them. To achieve success, employers can look to new developments in EFAPs that have focused on enhancing awareness, improving access, reducing stigma and creating greater confidence in these programs.

The ROI of EFAPs
In its 2013 report, Missing in Action: Absenteeism Trends in Canadian Organizations, The Conference Board of Canada found that, on average, Canadian employees were absent from work 9.3 days in 2011. Given that the direct cost of absenteeism is estimated to be an average 2.4% of gross annual pay, that works out to a one-year $16.6-billion loss for the Canadian economy—approximately $1,100 per employee. And this does not take into account indirect costs, such as hiring replacement workers. (Many studies have pegged the cost of replacement at 1.5 times salary or higher.) The Conference Board also notes that absenteeism may increase in the coming years as the workforce ages.

The high cost of absenteeism is not unique to Canada. Employers around the world are looking at options to help reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, including introducing an EFAP or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Earlier this year, Australian EFAP provider Davidson Trahaire Corpsych released results of its research into the ROI of EAPs. It surveyed 4,707 EAP users both before and after they had accessed EAP services. It determined that, across all customer organizations in Australia, the average ROI due to improvements in employee productivity was A$10,187.99 (around C$9,800) per employee, while the ROI due to savings in salary costs resulting from reduced absenteeism was A$290.34 (about C$280) per employee. In total, the ROI per employee was more than C$10,000.

Morneau Shepell also looked at EAP ROI in its 2011 study, EAP Improves Health Status and Productivity, and Demonstrates a Positive ROI. It gathered outcome data for 53,224 EAP cases that were opened and subsequently closed during 2010. The analysis confirmed that EAP intervention results in not only a favourable impact on job performance but also a financial benefit to organizations: a 25% reduction in health-related lost productivity costs for employers, providing an $8 return on every dollar invested.

In addition, in a September National Post column, Dr. James Aw cited an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that reported findings from a U.S. study examining the ROI of investing in workplace health and safety. The study tracked the stock market performance of publicly traded corporations that had won the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s Corporate Health Achievement Award and invested in corporate medical departments and wellness programs, versus the overall performance of the market at large. The study found that “healthy” companies came out on top. Aw’s conclusion was that “focusing on the health and safety of a workforce is good business.”

Enhancing Awareness
While they have to be concerned about ROI, organizations also introduce EFAPs for a variety of less tangible reasons. Many believe it’s “the right thing to do”—a way of helping employees with their struggles, as well as assisting the organization with attraction and retention.

All organizations that offer an EFAP, however, are interested in maximizing its effectiveness. This means ensuring that employees and their families are familiar with the EFAP and aware of what it can do for them, as well as encouraging its use.

The range of support services available may surprise employees. As York University’s assistant vice-president, HR, Aileen Ashman, points out, “EFAPs help with much more than substance abuse these days. They assist with family and marital issues, childcare, eldercare, finances, legal challenges, physical health concerns and more.”

Employers often include a brochure about the EFAP in their employee benefits packages and may also talk about the EFAP in employee orientation sessions. But these efforts are rarely sufficient to keep the EFAP top of mind.

Organizations need to use ongoing communication to encourage employees to access the services available to them, such as:

  • a letter from a senior executive regarding the EFAP—perhaps timed to coincide with an annual health fair or with Mental Health Week in May;
  • internal newsletter articles with information about the services offered and how to access them; • wallet cards and payroll stuffers with contact information;
  • webinars and lunch-and-learn sessions;
  • posters, bulletin board notices and special memos that encourage usage; and
  • mobile apps that create awareness of all services offered, as well as tools and content on mental health, financial issues, work stress and family help.

A more recent focus has been on manager training, in which managers and supervisors learn to identify employees who may have issues, based on their performance, and how to refer them to take advantage of EFAP counselling.

Ashman finds this supervisor support extremely valuable. “Workplace stress is on the rise, and it can have a real impact on employee productivity,” she explains. “It’s important to provide managers and supervisors with guidance so that they know how best to spot issues and encourage their direct reports to get help through the EFAP.” Ashman also appreciates reports that are available through the university’s EFAP provider that respect confidentiality but allow trending in usage, types of issues addressed and actions taken. “This helps us to gauge the awareness level of our EFAP and determine its success.”

Improving Access
Perhaps the one area where there has been the most change over the last five years is how people access EFAP services. Providers realized that they had to make it easy for employees and their families to get the support they needed and that one avenue was not going to meet the needs of everyone. With some experience under their belts, providers are now able to discern the effectiveness of various access methods by giving users the help they’re looking for.

In addition to calling a 1-800 number or visiting a website, employees and family members can contact their EFAP using several new digital service delivery options. Personal experience—confirmed by Shepell•fgi’s 2013 report The digital age: How people are accessing EFAP services—indicates these access points are especially popular with younger people in the age range of 18 to 29.

Employees and their families can download an app on their phones to receive immediate live counselling, book appointments and contact the call centre, as well as read articles and view videos. Some employers download the app on all corporate mobile devices, saving the employee a step.

With instant chat and texting, users can gain immediate access to a secure, live counselling chat tool. This method has been particularly useful in reaching first-time users. In a 2012 Shepell•fgi study, 65% of users reported that they had never accessed any EFAP service before.

Also, video counselling was first designed to serve employees and their families in remote locations, where in-person counselling services were limited. However, it has become popular with those in urban centres as well, offering the convenience of reduced time and travel with comparable client satisfaction levels.

Reducing the Stigma
From the employee perspective, one of the deterrents to using an EFAP is the stigma associated with the need for these services. To some extent, the range of services now offered has helped to alleviate this issue: today, employees are just as likely to use an EFAP to find a daycare provider as an addiction counsellor. Other initiatives can also go a long way toward easing any reluctance to utilize the EFAP.

Leadership support of good mental health, understanding mental illness and reaching out for help—as well as confidential, personal endorsements from co-workers—can help to eliminate any stigma. When employees are convinced that their issues will remain confidential and that there is a skilled response team and counsellors waiting to help them, they’ll feel more confident about using the EFAP.

EFAP Effectiveness
The numbers don’t lie. If absenteeism decreases, productivity increases (suggesting that presenteeism is under control), and there is a corresponding upsurge in employee usage of the EFAP, showing employers that the EFAP is working well. Other tangible results that organizations will look for include fewer disability claims and lower costs, along with reduced prescription drug costs for mental health and emotional issues.

But the qualitative data is as important as the quantitative. It’s critical to seek feedback from employees to determine how aware they are of the EFAP services available to them, how effective they think these services are, whether they’ve used them and if they have any concerns about doing so. To ensure that the EFAP continues to meet needs over time, employers should regularly solicit employees’ opinions.

With growing evidence of the ROI of EFAPs, it’s not surprising that smaller organizations are also interested in making them available to employees. Matthew Cook, CEO of SalesForce Search (an organization that has 15 employees but is growing), finds that offering an EFAP is an unexpected—but appreciated—tool for attraction and retention. “Everyone has problems,” says Cook. “However, when one or two people are absent or distracted in a small company, that’s a substantial portion of the workforce.”

Cook also dispels the myth that small organizations can’t afford to offer an EFAP. “Our EFAP is the same price as a cup of coffee per month per employee— very affordable,” he says. “But it’s invaluable in terms of keeping our staff happy and focused.”

An EFAP is an important tool for enhancing employee productivity and engagement—but only if employees are aware of it and have the trust to use it. Changing attitudes, new services and technology advances have increased employee awareness and encouraged usage to maximize an employer’s ROI.

Maximum Benefit
When developing an employee and family assistance program (EFAP), the key is to adopt an employee-first perspective so that your program truly meets the needs of your workforce. Here are a few points to consider.

  • What services will be most useful in helping to alleviate stress in your workplace? If you have younger employees, you may want to include counselling services to help with childcare, buying a first home and time management, while an older workforce might be more interested in retirement planning and eldercare.
  • Consider multiple channels to remind employees about your EFAP and encourage them to use it. Add the stamp of approval from senior leadership to reduce the stigma of accessing EFAP services.
  • While it’s safe to assume that younger employees will be in favour of using technology to access the EFAP, don’t automatically assume that older employees aren’t high-tech. According to The Ipsos Canadian inter@ctive Reid Report 2012 Fact Guide, 68% of Canadians age 55 and older have Internet access at home.
  • Integrate the EFAP into your existing wellness programs. Nutrition and fitness coaching are great examples of programs that can complement Heart Month or your office walking club.
  • Monitor and measure the success of your EFAP. Look at whether absenteeism decreases, engagement increases, EFAP usage goes up and productivity improves.

Neil King is senior vice-president, employee support solutions, with Shepell•fgi.

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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