Choosing an EAP for your employees

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Comparing apples to apples and EAP's to EAP's?

Employee Assistance Programs are one of the most effective benefits for supporting employees' mental health and total well-being. EAPs are also a key component to building organizational health, as they help address workforce challenge, performance issues, crisis response and creating a 'great place to work' culture.

As a stand-alone EAP, Northstar EAP creates a partnership that delivers the 8 core technologies that define an EAP. This is a differentiator and again, it depends on what you are looking to achieve. Having a clear why and defined reason for adding this benefit is the first step for your EAP search process.

Let's be clear, when choosing products, vendors, service providers, it is a wild landscape. First you (should) talk to your peers and contacts at both comparable and quality organizations and learn who and what they are using. Do they like it? Does their staff like it? You want both referrals and anecdotal information to help you make your decision. Then you narrow it down, based on your industry, size of organization, and most importantly your company values. If your aim is check a box, say you have an "EAP", something is better than nothing, we get that. If your goal is to move your group's needle on mental health in the workplace (and beyond), improve employee retention and hiring opportunities, and see a decrease in medical claims and absenteeism, then have we got a deal for you. The deal is investing in a standalone EAP.

There are a LOT of digital mental health products available. Some are great and some are claiming to be an EAP. Dr. Mark Attridge, a subject matter expert on the topic of EAPs, recently published an article, and he states, " One implication is that some of the digital-only vendor businesses are just not being honest with benefits brokers and employers about what they are selling. How can they claim to be able to "replace EAPs" without actually offering most of the services that define a full-service EAP? Thus, when a mental health App or techno-only provider ignores the workplace service components that are essential to employee assistance, it is not a real EAP."

Benefit Brokers, HR Directors, and those working with groups in need of an EAP, spend time learning and prepping your question list prior to talking to the vendors. Understand your goals and start to understand the differences in service providers. There can be varied pricing, but more than a number, decide on the value provided by the partnership. Do they respond quickly to your emails? Answer when you call? Provide a variety of tools for your team? Understand your employee population and company values? All great questions to ask when meeting with groups. Don't just take the brokers word for it, EAP is a nuanced subject that takes time to understand. It is apples and oranges when looking at a digital product versus a true stand-alone EAP.

Here are some additional tips when seeking an EAP partner.

  • Define your EAP goals.

For example, are your top goals to provide improved access to mental health support, strengthen employee engagement, or create a 'great place to work' environment that supports the whole employee-these are just some of the overarching goals to consider. If there are specific financial goals or KPIs, like reducing absenteeism, health care costs, or retention and turnover costs, clearly outline specific goals you're hoping a strong EAP partner can help address.

  • Evaluate the full scope of EAP services available.

Some EAPs may only offer mental health counseling, while other more comprehensive EAPs offer life coaching, financial consultation, legal consultation, work-life and caregiving referrals, medical advocacy, personal assistant and concierge referrals, management consultation and referrals, crisis response, and training. High-quality EAPs also offer integrated wellness and health coaching, as well as robust organizational development solutions. 

  • Review virtual care and in-person counseling options.

Virtual care options, especially for mental health sessions, allow for employees to access services from any location, at convenient times; while in-person sessions with licensed clinicians are also important and highly-effective in providing quality mental health care. The member experience should prioritize ease of access and multiple modality options for counseling and support.

  • Confirm your EAP account manager will always be accessible.

In times of crisis or urgent need, having an account manager on-call is critical. The best employee assistance programs make sure dedicated account managers are always available to respond, accessible by phone (you can always talk to a real person), and highly-responsive all year long to support your organizational goals and needs. From providing immediate crisis consultation in the event of a workplace tragedy to walking you through how to refer an employee who may be dealing with personal challenges to the EAP for professional support, your account manager should be your trusted partner, and always available.

  • Take a close look at EAP confidentiality and data security.

Many virtual and mental health care platforms have varying privacy and data sharing practices, some even sharing information with third-parties. It is crucial to ask the right questions up front and read the fine print, to ensure your employees' information is never used for data mining or data sharing in any capacity, and prevent any liability issues. Confirm that all contact with the employee assistance program is private, in compliance with HIPAA and other regulations. Trust is essential, and the best employee assistance programs ensure the highest standards of confidentiality.

  • Ask for information on EAP program promotion and member engagement.

The key to driving EAP awareness, engagement and utilization is effective communication and program promotion practices. This may include a program kick-off announcement campaign, monthly newsletters, orientation and training, video promotion, social media marketing and ongoing awareness campaigns-especially for special observances like Mental Health Awareness month.

Each organization is unique, with specific goals for finding the best employee assistance program that will help address top concerns and priorities. Each EAP is also unique in its scope of services and program offerings. Identifying your organizational needs up front, understanding what's included in the program and what's at an additional cost, and comparing various EAP program components and service models will help in finding the perfect-fit employee assistance program for your organization.

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