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How to Remove the Stigma of Utilizing an EAP

You don’t know me, but I’m gonna get real here: Several years ago, I faced the Absolute Worst Time in My Life.

While such things never operate on a convenient schedule, this one arrived at a most inopportune time: shortly after I began a new job. The circumstances in my personal life were so enormous, I couldn’t help but carry them to work. Being miserable every moment and depressed beyond belief, I believed it was best to tell my boss about my world being turned upside down.

At some point in that talk, she said, “You know, we have an EAP here.”

“What’s an EAP?” I asked.

My question was no surprise. The employee assistance program (EAP) is one of the most underutilized benefits companies offer.

Depending on size of the workforce, between 75% and 95% of businesses offer an EAP, according to the International Employee Assistance Professional Association. However, not even 7% of employees take advantage of the counseling benefit, despite that 18% of American adults are estimated to be dealing with a mental health issue at any time.

Why such a wide gap?

Shame, shame, shame

The answer may be easy, but tough to overcome. Three main reasons exist for the disparity:

  1. Employees don’t know about your EAP.
  2. Those who know about it may not understand how it works, such as its no-cost, no-copay visits.
  3. And those who understand it fear the stigma attached to it.

Their reluctance is not unwarranted. Divorce, finances, legal woes, substance abuse: Whatever the reason one may need an EAP, all are embarrassing – not exactly the thing a person wants to share with co-workers. People hear “mental illness” and immediately assume “crazy” or “weak,” yet experts agree that to seek help is a move both rational and brave.

While the stigma surrounding mental illness may never be eradicated overall, HR personnel can take steps to change minds in the workplace. Even better, in combating reason No. 3, they take care of reasons 1 and 2 as well.

No one has to know

Above all, the employee wants reassurance that their use of an EAP will be confidential. While that can be done on a one-on-one basis, as in my real-life example, it begins with HR educating their workforce on the program, just as it would with health insurance or 401(k)s. As with any employer-offered benefit, people are intimidated by what they do not “get.”

Communication to workers should stress the anonymity of his or her consultation through an EAP; make the program’s contact information visible – such as posted in break rooms and on the company’s intranet page – so employees can access it when and if they need it, rather than mustering the courage to contact HR for it. To remove that one step of co-worker contact could be the difference between the worker seeking counsel or shying away from it.

As workplace consultant Steve Albrecht put it, “There is no need for employees to tell anyone. They don’t need to ask permission, go through HR channels, or do anything other than contact the EAP and make an appointment.”

Furthermore, ensure employees understand that, as with any medical issue, privacy laws remain in place, and counselors and therapists have no contact with the employer about your situation.

Take it from me

Whether on or off the clock, when people we know casually mention trying a new restaurant or seeing a new movie, we typically ask something like “So how was it?” If their experience was positive, we are more likely to try it as well, in hopes for an equally satisfying or pleasurable result.

The same can be said of EAP utilization, which is why I shared my own experience at the top of this post: When you hear something unknowable has worked for someone else, it becomes less alien, more relatable. In my case, being told by a co-worker than she found EAP visits to a counselor incredibly helpful made my decision a no-brainer (no pun intended).

Similarly, bringing in a third party – such as a therapist one might visit through your EAP – to address your workforce can remove the mystery, thereby boosting employees’ comprehension and lessening their hesitancy.

For example, when Sprint’s corporate headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, hosted a local celebrity to share his personal battle with depression and anxiety, EAP utilization leapt to 30% among the telecom giant’s employees in the six months that followed.

Those are results any organization can get behind, not to mention the others that come with your employees’ well-being, including productivity and profits.

Want to learn more about making a business case for your company’s EAP? Check out this post.