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Evaluating EAP effectiveness: Need for change

Just 9% of HR managers have attempted to evaluate their EAP in terms of ROI, and so could be missing a trick

Faster, digitally-enhanced lifestyles combined with austerity and the particular woes of the squeezed middle means all employees face unprecedented demands and anxieties. More organisations are using employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to provide important support services, and use of services like counselling is rising.

But what we mostly see are confused reports from the frontline on stress and long-term absence. We only have piecemeal insights that don’t set out what the issues really are nationally and in different sectors and age groups, how they’re changing over time, and most importantly how different employer interventions are helping and what else EAP providers can do.

In a new Work Foundation report commissioned by EAPA researchers found that just 9% of HR manager respondents had attempted to evaluate their EAP in terms of a cost utility benefit or return on investment via the impact on sickness absence, productivity, performance or engagement. For 31% there had been no attempt to evaluate the quality or impact of the EAP.

A national map of psychological wellbeing in the UK workplace would help employers, wellbeing support providers, and government to better understand and manage the complex issues involved. By sharing data on usage levels and tracking what issues are being raised and by which employee groups we’d have a much stronger basis from which to get a grip on what’s happening in terms of employee wellbeing, and where HR needs to focus resources.

The most common reason for organisations not evaluating their EAP was lack of pressure from senior executives. The EAP is just considered to be the ‘right thing’ to offer. There’s a fundamental perception of EAPs as a 'cost-effective' or 'far less expensive' option than other wellbeing improvement schemes. But in the context of economic uncertainties and the availability of data from other areas of workplace operations, how long will this lack of scrutiny last?

Sharing data through mapping would open up the potential for benchmarking EAP services, even if it’s only at a simple level. For both HR and EAP providers there’s the opportunity to demonstrate a hard basis of evidence for ROI by tracking positive outcomes against standard costs for long-term absence and other workplace disruption. There needs to be this kind of converted and collaborative effort into making the wellbeing of employees effectively measurable.

No-one would argue that reaching a standard measure for use of services and ROI figures will be easy. We’re in a situation where the range of EAP services and forms of delivery are very different, and it's sometimes confusing for buyers to understand how they compare and the value for money involved.

What’s needed at this stage is debate and discussion with HR that can provide the necessary impetus. This kind of national mapping and benchmarking would be powerful for HR in terms of demonstrating ROI on support services provided to employees and the importance of wellbeing in general - as a platform for proving impact on productivity and performance, and making sure organisations are getting value. Shouldn’t we start talking about defining terms on usage of services and key measurements?

Zofia Bajorek is researcher at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation and Andrew Kinder chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association