Why Hardly Anyone Uses Employee Assistance Programs

By: Alia Hoyt
EAP services are often free for employees but they seldom take advantage of them. GARO/PHANIE/Getty Images

More than 97 percent of large companies in America (over 5,000 employees) offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), for those needing a professional to talk over personal or family issues with. Even 75-80 percent of medium-sized and smaller companies make EAP services available to employees.

These are usually free, even to employees who don't opt for the company's health insurance plans. "For many organizations, better supported employees can translate into improved productivity, decreased absenteeism and greater employee satisfaction," explains Valerie Keels, special expertise panelist with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in an email interview.


But despite their low or no cost, only about 6.9 percent of North American employees take advantage of EAP services. Why is that? Here are the top reasons.

1. Employees Don't Know What EAPs Are.

Like most industries, there's a lot of jargon floating around in human resources (HR). As such, a lot of employees don't really understand what EAPs are all about, which could be to their own detriment. EAPs have changed a lot since the field started 50 years ago to identify and help alcoholic employees. By monitoring job performance and intervening before things got too out of control, this saved everyone a lot of money and heartache.

Today, EAPs typically deal with a much wider range of issues, including depression, stress, drug abuse, relationship problems, career issues, health and wellness, financial and legal concerns and family care (children and elders, specifically).


Sarah Dowzell, co-founder of NaturalHR, an HR technology provider, who previously worked in HR for a company of 100 people remembers that at that company, quarterly stats from the EAP provider showed the service was seldom used. "At the time the feeling from the HR team was that we could have done more to communicate what an EAP is, what types of issues can be supported through the service and to assure employees that it was an independent and confidential service," she emails.

2. EAPs are Hard to Navigate.

Although EAPs offer a lot of potentially helpful assistance, all that information can be hard to wade through. The burden usually falls on HR professionals to communicate the various features of an EAP program. "I believe EAPs are underutilised because they're often bundled onto other products and services and subsequently poorly communicated," says Dowzell. "For example, we put a health cash plan in place for our team to help reimburse costs for medical and dental treatments. Somewhere in the long list of what's included from the supplier is a mention of EAP...I wasn't specifically looking for an EAP provider [but] it's nice to have as I do draw attention to it as part of our employee onboarding."

The International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) notes that small-to-mid-size companies are likely to have better participation rates (although they declined to give specific data) probably because communication channels are more effective,. Certain groups also lend themselves better to EAPs, says the EAPA, like women, helping professionals (like nurses and social workers) and more educated populations.


3. Employees Are Scared to Divulge Personal Information.

Even though EAP services are confidential, employees are worried that the information may somehow be leaked to management. In fact, EAP participation rates are usually better in companies where the management is deemed trustworthy.

But either way, employees should know that information divulged to an EAP professional will be only be released to their supervisor with the employee's permission. The employee will usually have to sign a written statement regarding what information may be released and to whom. This is rare and likely to come up only if the issue is one that might directly affect employment -- such as someone who struggles with alcoholism and operates heavy machinery. Otherwise, your employer would never even be notified that you have used EAP services for any reason.


4. The Issue Might Seem Too Small.

EAPs are not only for people dealing with substance abuse or mental illness. They can also help employees needing a will drawn up or help with their diet. "Staff don't think about the EAP when addressing more mundane (if I can use that word) issues such as work/life balance, nutrition and physical fitness and other 'wellness' offerings," says SHRM's Valerie Keels. HR could up the EAP participation rates by reminding employees such services exist and are free to use. "I also think the actual providers could do a better job of supporting companies and HR teams in communicating the provisions with marketing materials," adds Dowzell.

Not every EAP service will have the same offerings so check with your provider or HR department to find out what's covered, and whether you can get face-to-face visits as well as phone calls or online interaction.