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EAPs And The Corporate World

By: Allon Bross

Bob Dylan said it in 1964: “The times, they are a-changin’.” Forty years later, those words have become the anthem for the corporate world. The way business is conducted in our global village is changing at a breakneck speed and our aging, diverse, and mobile workforce is feeling the strain. It’s time for employee assistance programs, disability management services, and benefit providers in general to heed Dylan’s words and change the way they think about wellness and how their services are delivered.

Productivity, cost, and strategic direction have always been the vital components in the success, even survival, of any organization. And the driving force behind those components is the health of the workforce. But over the past few years, the aging population, the rising rate of obesity, technological advances, and corporate restructurings have taken their toll on the physical and mental health of our North American workforce. Indeed, mental health issues are now having a profound effect on corporate productivity as depression, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses continue to rise at an unbelievable rate.

Still True Today

Employers and employee support providers cannot ignore this fact because it has long been noted that productivity is intrinsically tied to workforce health. Back in 1776, Adam Smith noted in his Wealth of Nations that workers are less likely to work productively “when they are frequently sick than when they are generally in good health….[Sickness] cannot fail to diminish the produce of their industry.” This is still true today. But Adam Smith could not forecast the cost mental health illnesses would have on the economy. These include medication costs, absenteeism, short- and longterm disability leaves, and what’s being dubbed ‘presenteeism’ – those employees who are at work, but not performing adequately due to physical or mental health issues – most commonly, allergies, headaches, and depression. Presenteeism has received a lot of attention in health literature over the past few months. A recent study by the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University found that up to 60 per cent of the total cost of employee illness comes from presenteeism.

Compounding this problem is the fact that most businesses have no way of estimating projected and total health and lost productivity costs. Human support initiatives such as EAPs, work/life programs, and disability management services have kept pace with the employee’s changing needs with new programs (such as eldercare) and improved services (for example, return-to-work initiatives), but have not kept pace with the changing needs of business. Business is now demanding not only a proven return on investment, but ways to help reduce health benefit costs, absences, presenteeism, and disability leaves as well as a way to tackle the alarming rise in mental health issues. Corporate Canada has realized that better management of employee health can lead to improved productivity, which can create a competitive business advantage.

Changing Needs

Over the past few years, employee support service providers have done a good job helping organizations improve their productivity by meeting the changing needs of their employees. Where providers are slipping, however, is in not keeping pace with the stunning rise of mental health problems, not addressing the impact of presenteeism on productivity, and in not helping corporate Canada gather, manage, and analyze data that could help project total health and lost productivity costs.

As EAP providers plan for the next few years in this ever-increasing competitive global marketplace, just how do they fill this gap in service? To start, they must broaden the scope of their services to address mental health issues, rethink how they deliver services, and offer help with trend analysis, data management, and interpretation.

They need to find new ways to address mental health issues. Admittedly, most providers have been proactive in this area, but the problem is outstripping existing services and they must be more aggressive in adopting new programs and services.

One way is to integrate EAPs with disability management to address absenteeism, diagnosed physical diseases, mental health issues, and presenteeism. Instead of having two distinct services, where an EAP ends and disability management services begin only when an employee goes on a short- or long-term disability leave, the two must overlap, interconnect, and cross-pollinate. For example, employee assistance programs must identify those at risk of going on short- or longterm leave, for either physical or mental issues, and involve disability management services to resolve or manage the issues and keep the individual healthy and productive.

Conversely, disability management must involve the EAP so that an employee involved in a return-to-work initiative will receive on-going support following the disability leave. By adopting a holistic approach, EAP and disability management specialists will also be better able to manage cases involving multiple physical problems or those involving both physical and mental issues. Cases involving multiple health issues are growing as our workforce ages, making the need for more integrated services more urgent.

EAP disability management expertise need to merge in formal absence prevention programs and programs to reduce presenteeism, thus improving overall corporate productivity.

Providers must start thinking ‘out of the box’ in regards to delivery systems. Ecounselling and Internet access are already available, but providers must go further by offering a one source solution to all health-related issues. In this approach, all requests – whether work/ life, EAP, or disability management – are handled through one phone call, each program just one part of one service. The growing complexity of issues will require growing simplicity of access to services.

Finally, there is trend analysis. For senior management to see what parts of the organization are being negatively affected by absenteeism, disability leaves, and/or slumping productivity, they need relevant data. EAP providers need to pay more attention to the collection, analysis, and management of relevant data to ensure their clients can more accurately estimate present and future health and lost productivity costs and receive a greater return on their investment.

The “Times may be a-changin’,” but one thing is certain, to remain competitive and profitable, organizations of all sizes must seek productivity through health. The more progressive companies are already heeding the call and looking for new ways to combat threats to productivity. Now it’s the turn of EAP providers to meet the challenge.

Allon Bross is chairman and chief executive officer of FGI.

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