Gone are the days when your work life and home life were considered two separate worlds. Increasingly, businesses appeal to employees with perks like flexible hours, community involvement and personal support, and they realize that a happy, healthy individual is a productive employee. While more and more benefits packages include a bevy of physical treatments for stress reduction and well-being, the oft-neglected subject of mental health is also rising to the forefront of conversations about workplace health and safety. The crux of high-quality mental health support is a well-run employee assistance program (EAP), also known as employee and family assistance programs (EFAP). EAPs arose in the 1940s to aid employees with alcohol problems but gradually came to encompass a variety of services regarding issues like stress, financial insecurity, substance abuse and depression. Yet very few people can define what makes an EAP successful, and businesses often scramble among the countless options to find an EAP right for their business. Commerce News sat down with Dr. Stephen Carter of Carter Haave Vandersteen Bateman Vroon – Registered Psychologists, an Edmonton Chamber member since 1998, to discuss EAPs and how to find the best for your business.

Go with the pros

“There’s a really wide range of what’s included in EAPs,” says Carter. “At one end, there are EAPs that allow three sessions for their employees and then they refer them to community agencies, and these are run by people with minimal training.” While they can provide temporary support and referrals, they can’t get to the bottom of an issue. At the other, he says, are psychologists – professionals with at least seven years of post-secondary training and experience. “Anybody can be a life coach,” he says, adding that good EAPs enlist psychologists. This ensures that employees get their issues handled with the utmost care and professionalism and are not simply transferred to another phone line.

Make it a family affair

“Nowadays, we’re recognizing that workers have lives outside of work, with families and commitments,” says Carter, “and sometimes what’s impairing a worker’s ability to function is a marital problem, a problem with their child or some other relationship issue.” The best EAPs include partners and dependents, he says, as this ultimately impacts the employees’ work performance. “If the person’s home environment and relationships are better, they’re more likely to be able to devote all of their attention to their task at work,” he says. Once rare, these family-centred plans are becoming more and more popular because they’re proven to be effective.

Know what to ask for

“The first thing the employer needs to know is what the included services are,” Carter says. “Another component they need to know is if my employee contacts you, how is it going to work? How long will it take to get in? Where will they be seen? How will the billing be done so we ensure confidentiality?”

In the race to compete with other businesses that have EAPs, don’t neglect the fact that there are different levels of providers and different qualities of programs. Don’t be afraid to say, “Here are our needs – we don’t want to buy a prepackaged program.”

Rest assured – it’s worth it

As a businessperson, you’re going to be justifiably concerned about costs. Figure out the expense of a potential EAP in terms of a cost-per-employee per hour, and determine how many sessions will be covered. But don’t miss the forest for the trees – remember, billions of dollars in productivity are lost in the Canadian economy every year because of depression alone, and long-term employees are invaluable. “Family problems, relationship issues, all sorts of other life change issues are draining huge amounts of resources from the economy,” Carter says. “[An EAP] is money well spent, because if we get that employee to optimum health, we’re better able to retain employees, and it’s far more important to retain employees that it is to just hire new ones.”

Published November 17, 2014 By Robbie Jeffrey