"EAPs are essential. Abandoning them puts workers' wellbeing at risk"

Use of EAP services has continued to climb since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, says Cary Cooper

The inability of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to meet massive increases in demand for mental health support – counselling in particular – without going fully digital or EAP-by-app, is a real threat.

In 2022, EAPs in the UK were called on to provide more than 1.3 million counselling sessions. Of those employees who contacted EAP services, 68% needed to be offered the support of counselling.

In general, usage levels have continued to climb since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as both awareness of mental wellbeing and the pressures on the average employee have intensified. Figures from the UK's Employee Assistance Professionals Association suggest that average usage is now over 12%, up from 10% pre-Covid-19, a substantial increase in the context of EAPs now being available to 18 million employees.

The need to provide face-to-face counselling or, at a minimum, person-to-person virtual sessions, is extremely important and fundamental to counselling’s success. I really worry about counselling delivered by AI chatbots or apps online. People in despair need as much face-to-face contact as possible. The employer-led move towards keeping costs down means that employers are increasingly more likely to opt for digital-only mental health apps.

Read more: Employee assistance programmes more popular than ever

Put it this way: it’s estimated that around 1.7% of counselling cases each year come with a ‘red flag’, meaning an immediate and serious risk of self-harm and suicide. What happens if an AI-based counselling service gets it wrong, and an employee ends up harming themselves or other people?

High EAP usage levels are also becoming a problem in terms of the availability of clinical resources. There is more competition for trained counsellors, and higher turnover as more counsellors look to diversify and move into developing their own private practices. EAPs, like so many other sectors, have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the decision among people over 50 to retire early, or reduce their work commitments.

Read more: The importance of providing mental health support for staff

Questions need to be asked around whether enough is being done to ensure that the UK is training enough counsellors. That’s critical in terms of meeting standards and avoiding a drift towards stripped-back versions of EAPs, where access to counselling is limited or just digital. There is also the issue of what effects the intense demand, along with that ever-increasing complexity and duration of the cases being handled, are having on counsellors: are these demands burning many of them out?

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The quicker problems are identified and support is made available, the better the personal and organisational outcomes. Using an EAP is in the interests of employees and employers alike, particularly when it is used as part of a wider, preventative strategy: a pro-active partnership.

EAPs need to be involved with helping to support their clients to understand some of the underlying and structural problems of their organisations, where it is obvious from the organisational demographics of employees using the service. Greater communications between HR or occupational health on the more macro-issues would be helpful.

HR and their EAP partners need to stand firm together against the potential for an erosion of human input and standards around mental health support. Human counsellors need protection as a scarce and critical resource, for organisational wellbeing, but also when it comes to their role in supporting society as a whole. Without EAPs, how would the millions of missing counselling sessions be resourced from within the NHS each year? Employee mental wellbeing is an example of where chasing efficiencies and cost savings really doesn’t make sense. 

By Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester