A higher standard

When choosing an employee and family assistance program (EFAP) provider, employers often start by considering several factors, including services offered, available resources, organizational fit and price. These aspects are definitely important but ignore a critical first step: gaining an understanding of the quality of service the provider offers. Fortunately, there is an objective standard for measuring EFAP service quality—the global Council on Accreditation (COA).

The fundamental premise of COA standards for EFAP providers is that increased organizational capacity results in improved service delivery and better outcomes for employers, employees and their families. Candidates for accredita-
tion are thus measured against their administrative and management practices and track record for measurable, effective service delivery.

The emphasis on results is important. While organizations are increasingly aware of the links between employees’ health, productivity levels and workplace engagement, many employers may find it difficult to justify investing in an EFAP unless the provider can demonstrate measurable improvements in these areas. The COA describes its accreditation process as “a framework within which an employer can measure the success of its programs, clearly demonstrating the business case for continuing them.”

Continuous improvement
Accreditation candidates need to establish that their practices meet more than 350 international standards, including training on legal issues. This is done through submission of written evidence, a site visit by the COA review team to verify the extent to which the provider meets the standards and a follow-up process to allow the candidate to address gaps identified by the COA. Checks and balances continue even after accreditation: certified EFAP providers must complete an annual maintenance report and complete a full re-certification process every three years.

For employers, choosing an accredited EFAP provider means greater peace of mind. Results from a 2002 study by the Aspen Institute and a 2003 U.S. congressional report suggest that EFAP providers adhering to COA standards place more emphasis on hiring staff with top professional credentials, ensure greater supervision of front-line staff through lower supervisor-to-staff ratios, and are able to improve the overall effectiveness of their offerings through reduced employee turnover, more efficient processes and strengthened capacity.

The Canadian experience
While COA accreditation is formally recognized in 45 American states, the District of Columbia and China, just one Canadian province, B.C., has followed suit. As a result of the rigorous process, not all EFAP providers operating in this country have pursued the designation despite the clear benefits of doing so.

But there is growing awareness of this accreditation by Canadian governments. The standards are currently recognized by both provincial and federal governments as factors that can contribute significantly to the improvement of Canada’s social service and behavioural health programs. Some ministries won’t contract for services with any organization that isn’t COA accredited.

The next step to ensuring that all Canadian EFAP providers become COA accredited is to raise awareness of the designation in the private sector. Given the highly sensitive nature of the services provided through EFAPs and the confidential data shared by organizations and their employees, it is unusual that there is no mandatory third-party oversight of the industry. And, while COA accreditation is not yet mandatory in all Canadian jurisdictions, employers can help to press the issue by choosing an accredited provider from which they can be assured of receiving effective care.

Tim Davison is regional vice-president of sales and account management with Shepell.fgi tdavison@shepellfgi.com