Employers want to offer employee assistance programs and employees want access to them — so why do they tend to be so underused?

The average EAP utilization sits at just 11 per cent and just 39 per cent of employees said they’re satisfied with EAP programs, according to the 2016 Sanofi Canada health-care survey. And despite employers’ investments in these services, mental-health issues are on the rise, with 78 per cent of employees reporting missing work due to a mental-health challenge, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“So, what’s the problem with EAP? The main issue is that . . . people were unclear what EAP means [and] they were not sure when to use it, why their employer was offering it; they were just unsure about the type of services they were able to have access to,” said Jean-Nicolas Guillemette, chief operating officer of Dialogue, at Benefits Canada’s 2021 Benefits & Pension Summit last week.

Read: What you don’t know about your employee assistance program

The second major issue for employees is a barrier to access, he said. They often need a 1-800 number, as well as their plan’s policy number, to call into their EAP hotline and many people don’t keep that information on hand. Employees who do end up calling often have to wait days or even weeks before they’re able to begin speaking with a mental-health professional. After they reach the number of sessions paid for by their employer, they’re quickly cut off from access to their therapist.

“The employee has started to trust his therapist and was making progress and then . . . after four sessions the service was cut and they were sent to an external provider and need to restart the journey of getting better,” said Guillemette.

Effective EAP has to put plan members front and centre by connecting them with the resources they need at the moment they need it, he noted. “It’s really important that we take charge of people really quickly. When you face a mental-health challenge, . . . it takes a lot of courage for people to go and ask for help and in most of the cases people wait until they reach a limit.”

Virtual solutions, which have seen an accelerated uptake during the pandemic, are key to minimizing the time it takes for plan members to get help and to making mental-health care more accessible.

Read: Evaluating the value of employee assistance programs

“A single mom with two kids [may] say, ‘I know I need to talk with a psychologist, but when I call there’s no one available at night at 7pm, I cannot find a babysitter that will take my kids and then I need to drive,’” said Guillemette. “There [are] so many barriers and reasons why [plan members] won’t receive a consultation and this is creating a huge issue. When it’s virtual, you can consult [with your therapist] in your living room when the kids are in bed, at work during the lunch break . . . and feel better really quickly.”

EAP solutions must be proactive, not just reactive, he noted. In cases where employees are reaching out with an acute issue, the service should include regular followups after the issue has passed, as well as the option for employees to continue speaking with the same professional even after they’ve used up their allotted number of covered sessions through the program.

“It’s the possibility to continue with the therapist that you have trusted, where you have shared your story [and] where you’re making progress. You will pay out of pocket or [use] your insurance benefit, but you will be able to continue with the same provider.”

He advised employers to select EAP options that allow them to see employee health outcomes at a high level and understand their return on investment.

Read: Dialogue buying Optima Global Health, expanding further into EAPs