The Canadian Source Of Employee Pension Fund Investment And Benefits Plan Management

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December 2007

The Shifting World Of EAPs

By: Sean Slater

Over the past two decades, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) have helped change the world of work. But the world of work has changed so radically during this time that EAPs have now reached a crossroads in their evolution. It’s time to rethink their role.

The core of EAPs as we know them today – confidential, short-term counselling for employees with personal problems that affect work performance – really took hold in Canada in the 1980s. Since then, EAPs have grown dramatically in scope to include health and wellness information and resources, employee and manager training, absence management, organizational consultations, trauma response, and much more.

EAPs took hold because organizations realized that productivity was intrinsically linked to employee mental health and that employee health has a profound impact on the bottom line. A 2005 survey by Hewitt Associates found that an organization with 2,000 employees stands to lose more than $3 million a year as a result of absenteeism. That’s a mere drop in the ocean when presenteeism – workers being on the job, but, because of physical and mental health issues, not fully functioning – is factored into the equation. In a 1999 U.S. study by the Employers Health Coalition, researchers calculated that the costs of presenteeism are 7.5 times greater than costs due to absenteeism.

So the idea of supporting employee health – both physical and mental – was a sound business proposition and EAPs became an important part of most organizational plans.

However, as the 2000s dawned, a new workplace reality emerged.

The New Reality

By the early 2000s, the days of plentiful human capital were over and employers were finding it more difficult to find skilled workers to fill the growing vacancies left by departing baby boomers. So while promoting health and productivity was still important, attracting – and retaining – talent became the number one item on the human resources agenda. The responsibility for employee satisfaction and well-being began to shift to managers and EAPs answered the call by developing more manager training and consultation offerings.

Technology had also transformed work. Twenty years ago, technology promised to relieve workload and reduce stress. Quite the opposite has happened as many employees are plugged into the office 24/7 thanks to home computers, PDAs, cell phones, and pagers. The result is that today’s workers often struggle to find time for personal responsibilities and recreation, and stress-related disorders are now costing Canadian businesses $12 billion annually. Again, EAPs reacted by introducing stress management, concierge services, and other programs.

Technology has also contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle. Over the past 30 years, obesity rates have steadily risen (23 per cent of us are overweight compared to 14 per cent of us in 1979) and, as a result, obesity related diseases such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers have also risen in all age brackets. In 2007, the total cost to Canada of illness, disability, and death from the four leading preventable chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and diabetes – was estimated at $45 billion annually. Imagine those costs in 10 or 20 years.

The effects of these diseases, together with growing depression and anxiety figures, have sent prescription drug costs through the roof.

EAP providers again responded, this time with new programs to help workers deal with depression and chronic diseases. Still, no matter how many programs they offered, EAPs then were reacting and responding to issues rather than getting out in front of them by offering prevention based programming.

Best-in-class EAP providers realized that their true value to an organization was in the aggregate and comparative data they were able to gather and share with partner organizations. Armed with this data, together with a full quiver of prevention-based interventions, organizations and their EAP partners were able to take aim at the issues that, until then, were only negative impacts on productivity, health, and, ultimately, a company’s bottom line.

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