EAPs: Breaking down the barriers to emotional and mental well-being

Employee assistance programs offer options to team members in distress, but they have to be willing to access the services

This is part three of an exclusive four-part series on the importance and benefits of employee assistance programs. Read part one here and part two here.

It’s a classic line from an iconic movie meant to inspire action: “If you build it, they will come.” Yet, in the real world, can anyone be sure something being available means it will be used? That seems to be the relevant question being asked by some employers that have implemented employee assistance programs (EAPs).

According to the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), EAPs are offered by 97 percent of large employers, but only five percent of employees use them annually. Despite the role EAPs can play in resolving personal and work-related issues, employers seem to be struggling to increase employee engagement in these programs. Why is that?

In the veterinary industry—which is characterized by burnout, frustration, and stress—employer-provided EAPs are perhaps not as widely available as they should be, while anecdotal reports indicate only a small percentage of employees use these services. So where do we go from here?

Raising awareness to increase use

Trisha Merchant, CVPM, is hospital manager with Animal Hospital of Pensacola, which offers an EAP with a broad range of services. She says employees must understand the purpose of EAPs, be aware of the services offered, and know that using any program is confidential. To raise awareness, Merchant’s hospital posts flyers in the restrooms and highlights the EAP in the employee manual, which staff must review and test on annually. Printed business cards with the name and number of the EAP are also available. Periodic messages are sent via the hospital’s communication platform during highly stressful periods, such as the holidays, reminding employees that counseling services are available and confidential.

“We saturate the hospital with EAP information so that staff knows confidential help is available. But unless there are extenuating circumstances, we usually don’t target specific employees and suggest they utilize services offered by the EAP. The fear is the employee may believe the hospital will have access to personal treatment information,” Merchant explains.

Several members of the hospital’s team have shared their EAP experiences with peers, which Merchant believes has helped some staff feel more comfortable and less stigmatized about seeking assistance through the program. Those who have shared information have made a personal decision to do so. It is a practice that is not encouraged or orchestrated by the hospital, but has been effective in breaking down barriers to using EAP services. “Employees who willingly share their positive stories with others are doing their colleagues a great service. Their candidness can propel others to take the leap and contact the EAP, which is important to maintaining mental well-being among staff,” Merchant says.

Timing is important

Becky Murray, CVT, MA, LCPC, of Veterinary Specialty Center, Buffalo Grove, Ill., says her practice’s EAP has been available for years. As the center’s counselor, she meets individually with staff and refers employees to the EAP if they can benefit from short-term counseling, referrals, or follow-up services to help deal with personal or work-related issues. The center has also implemented an active EAP communication campaign, which consists of sending out notices, addressing services at staff meetings, posting descriptions throughout the practice, and highlighting the EAP in the annual employee handbook review. Despite these efforts, only a small number of employees have used the services. According to Murray, unless a staff member is dealing with an issue at the time these notices go out, the EAP falls off their radar. Staff is more likely to be amenable to using services if they receive information when they are in the throes of a personal or work-related problem. Therefore, to ensure the EAP registers with employees when they are most vulnerable, it should be promoted repeatedly through several platforms.

Educating staff

Murray offers two additional issues that can impact use. The first involves how the employee believes others (i.e. coworkers and superiors) will perceive their asking for help. “In this industry, there are many of us who feel we have to be perfect,” she says. “The high level of stress experienced by those in veterinary medicine combined with personal issues can be overwhelming. Some of those in the industry hold themselves to an impossibly high standard and are reluctant to show vulnerability. This is problematic. If you can’t admit you are struggling and need coping resources, you are not going to resolve the issues.”

Sometimes the genesis of the problem impacts whether an employee seeks help, Murray adds. Those having trouble with work issues may be more motivated to ask for help because the industry is notoriously stressful. Colleagues understand that, and therefore, there is less of a stigma associated with getting help. Employees dealing with personal issues (e.g. caring for a chronically ill child) that engender sympathy from their colleagues may also be more amenable to accepting assistance because they have their peers’ support. Yet, if the employee is struggling with a serious mental health diagnosis (or suspected diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder, a major depressive episode, or schizophrenia), they may be afraid of being stigmatized if they admit they need help. They may also be concerned they will put their job at risk if the employer finds out about the diagnosis.

Murray recommends a three-pronged education strategy to address these barriers to accessing care. First, she suggests educating employees about the services provided by the EAP and emphasizing they are confidential. In other words, employers are not provided with information about who has used services and for what reason. Managers should be clear: requesting help will not jeopardize employment.

Secondly, she recommends educating managers and supervisors to be aware of changes in employee behavior that may indicate they could benefit from the services provided through an EAP. Supervisors who are aware of the warning signs of distress and can provide pertinent information to the employee can hopefully offer constructive solutions before a crisis occurs.

Finally, it is essential to destigmatize mental health issues by emphasizing that in the course of a lifetime, most people undergo physical, emotional, and psychosocial changes that can affect their well-being. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help during these times of transition. Rather, it is a necessary step to coping and growing stronger.

EAPs can offer options, solutions, and hope to employees in distress. But unless staff members are willing to access the services provided by these programs, they do little good. To ensure employees receive the care they need, it is essential practices critically assess the barriers present and take appropriate action.

Beth Drost is a communication specialist who has worked on veterinary industry issues for more than a decade. She is a member of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association’s (VHMA’s) public relations team and is collaborating with the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) to produce this series of employee assistance program (EAP) articles.

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