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EAPs heavy on variety, light on enrollees

EAPs heavy on variety, light on enrollees

When it comes to improving participation rates in employee assistance programs, consultants, vendors and employers say promotion and integration are the two key ingredients.

EAP utilization remains low for the most part, they say, and utilization definitions vary among EAP vendors (see story, page 12).

Not only do employees tend to forget about the EAP, they often associate it only with mental health and are unaware of other work/ life and financial services that today's EAPs offer. A good promotion campaign that reaches all employees while communicating all the other services that EAPs provide, in addition to the traditional counseling, will go a long way toward increasing participation, experts say.

At the same time, coordinating the EAP with other programs, such as short- and long-term disability and the Family Medical Leave Act, also works well to get more employees to seek the help they need and promote awareness of the EAP, experts note.

"There are a lot of different ways to increase utilization, but the bottom line is, unless the individual knows about the service, they are not going to use it," said Dan Clark, vp and chief marketing officer of Resources for Living L.L.C., an Austin, Texas-based behavioral wellness organization. "The key is having a really good communications and promotion campaign associated with the EAP."

"UtilizationÖis just so low for EAPs," said Carl Mowery, a managing director of SMART Business Advisory and Consulting based in Chicago. "For the companies I deal with, the penetration is about 6% to 10%—10% being unusually high," he said, noting that he defines utilization as the number of unique users accessing the program.

In addition to being "one of those services that employees forget about," EAPs continue to have a mental health stigma associated with them, he said.

Many of today's EAPs have a wide range of offerings from work-life to financial and legal services, Mr. Mowery said. Employers can improve participation by effectively communicating other services the EAP provides.

"We try to highlight other services that the EAP has to offer—not just the counseling piece of it—whether it's assistance for family members in the military, a child with an issue or trying to find a child care provider," said Belinda Kitts, vp-benefits and risk management for Ruby Tuesday Inc.

The Maryville, Tenn.-based restaurant chain has seen its EAP utilization rates, which are based on the number of calls and Web inquiries about the program, increase steadily over the past four to five years, to about 5%.

Ms. Kitts attributes the rising trend to Ruby Tuesday's communications efforts.

"We try to communicate it at all levels so supervisors know that if they have someone working for them going through a situation, they can refer them to the EAP. We also frequently communicate it in our weekly news announcement. There is also a direct link to the EAP site on our intranet," Ms. Kitts said.

The EAP also is a featured vendor at Ruby Tuesday's annual benefits fair, at which employees can learn about all the benefits the company offers. Communication is key "in very different ways—whether it's print, payroll stuffers, e-mail, posters. It's communicating it every time you get a chance," Ms. Kitts said.

For retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the company is looking to more Web- and video-based communications to help boost its EAP participation rate, which it defines as the number of unique users accessing the services and averages about 1%.

To reach its goal of about 4% to 5% participation, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company soon will roll out a new computer-based training module introducing the EAP to all new hires at each of its stores, said Lisa A. Cummings, Wal-Mart's director of benefits design and compliance. The company also is looking to add an EAP Webcast on its benefits Web site that will provide a video version of its monthly EAP newsletter as well as other types of EAP-related broadcasts that will be featured on TVs located in the associates' break rooms, she said.

"It is constant communications and it's also providing that information in different media formats," Ms. Cummings said. "Because our associates are a broad range of ages, they feel more comfortable receiving information in different formats."

While a multifaceted communications program is key to promoting EAP awareness, integrating an EAP into the organization and coordinating it with other employer-sponsored programs is just as important, experts say.

"The most effective way to increase utilization is to have the EAP visible within the organization on a personal basis," said Sandra Routledge, a Vancouver, British Columbia, senior consultant in the group health care practice of Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

When employers integrate the EAP within their organization, it leads to very innovative programs that meet the unique needs of the organization, which then leads to increased utilization, she said.

For example, Ms. Routledge said she knows of one hospital group that has increased its utilization rates tremendously by offering programs to meet the specific needs of its employees, such as adverse medical event counseling.

"Whenever we have managers, directors, vps talking about various work situations, they always include (Resources for Living,)" Wal-Mart's EAP, Ms. Cummings said. "They view the EAP as part of their HR team."

So if a situation arises with one of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million associates, such as a death, an RFL counselor goes to the site to facilitate group counseling sessions and help support managers and the associates individually if needed, Ms. Cummings said.

In addition, integrating the EAP with other programs such as disability, workers compensation, FMLA or the group health plan "is really important," Mr. Clark said.

Employees often take leave under FMLA to care for an ailing family member, he said. If coordinated, the FMLA administrator could refer that employee to the EAP for help with grief counselors, power of attorney information or hospice referrals, he said.

"That's where the real value" of the EAP lies. "I think the EAP is uniquely able to cross-sell those benefit silos because it has applicability in multiple areas," Mr. Clark said.

"I do a lot of work around absence and disability management, and I always look at how integrated the EAP is" with other programs, Watson Wyatt's Ms. Cummings said. If an employee is out on disability due to depression, how involved is the EAP in mediating that employee's return to work? Or if an employee is out with a catastrophic illness such as cancer, Ms. Cummings said she also examines how often the EAP is brought in to help that individual and his or her family.