© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the October 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Benefits Trends: 1-800-HELP
Employee Assistance Providers are having a bit of an identity crisis these days: they’re expanding service offerings while struggling to “sell” core services.
By Anna Sharratt

THE VOICE ON THE OTHER END OF THE PHONE SOUNDS concerned. “EAPs are a commodity these days; in companies they’re looked at as an expense versus being looked at as a valuable service that helps their employees be more productive.”

No, it’s not a help line. It’s Louise Hartley, president of the Employee Assistance Society of North America and vice-president, clinical services, Family Services Employee Assistance Programs in Toronto, discussing the tough sell EAPs have become. Originally, EAPs focused solely on providing in-person counseling to employees on a per-use basis. “They were trying to improve the psychological and emotional well-being of the employees,” explains Amy Goldberg, CEO of Grandcare, a wellness provider in Toronto.

But EAPs have slowly been moving into new realms: wellness initiatives, disability management, and depression-reduction programs.

According to Karen Seward, vice-president, marketing at Toronto-based Warren Shepell, times have changed because of new employer needs—and the desire of providers to remain competitive.

“Clients are asking for help in managing claims costs and managing absenteeism and things that have really hard numbers to them. So EAPs are struggling with ‘what are the five things that we’re going to add to our program,’ offering that [which] not only differentiates us but also allows us to retain our business.”

Seward adds there is the added complication of attempting to address both employee and sponsor needs at the same time to remain attractive to both groups. She says if EAPs only offer psychological counseling, their employee appeal factor will decline.

“I think there’s a natural stigma to what we offer. I doubt anybody would select psychological counseling as a benefit they would advocate for. Primarily because your employer would look at you as if you were crazy.”

But in the quest to meet as many needs as possible while remaining healthy financially, EAP providers face challenges. Should they move away from core competencies? Should they redefine their corporate identity, and forgo traditional counseling? And where does this leave plan sponsors?

One school of thought is that zeroing in on one’s core strengths is the key to success, instead of competing in the disability management and IT consultation areas. These “traditional EAP” advocates express concerns that the original mandate of EAPs—to provide psychological counseling—could get lost in the shuffle.

“I think you could say it’s a worry,” says Hartley. “You’ve only got so much attention; when you start to look at these other things, what gets diluted?” She feels that if psychological counseling is put on the back burner, employees will not have their mental health needs adequately addressed. Adds Goldberg: “You can’t be all things to all people.”

But others in the industry feel expanding offerings is critical in ensuring employer buy-in because plan sponsors get the sense their specific needs are being addressed. In offering more diverse products, EAPs can target problem areas of the company more effectively and tailor products that address those issues.

Seward says her company has successfully integrated wellness programs into its roster in the past few years. But she emphasizes that adding more services needs to go hand-in-hand with the services a provider does best. She suggests EAPs keep in mind what they’re good at while being branching out.

As for sponsors looking for a provider, there is agreement on what makes a good EAP. Employers should choose providers who have a commitment to confidentiality, experts in each field rather than generalists, a proven track record and many satisfied clients.

Hartley offers these parting words: “We really are experts in behavioural health issues that are key to keeping knowledge workers productive and engaged.” It’s a belief she hopes EAPs—and sponsors— won’t forget.

Anna Sharratt is managing editor of BENEFITS CANADA.