Addressing Workplace Mental Health Challenges with Employee Assistance Programs

Terri Patterson


August 31, 2021

A woman typing on a laptop at a desk with a peach-colored yoga mat on the desk in the foreground.

The shift to remote work, blurring of boundaries between personal and work life, and increased social and political unrest across the country has contributed to a workforce that is increasingly vulnerable, with 55% of employees reporting a decline in mental wellness since the beginning of the pandemic. Many employers have examined their employee assistance program (EAP) offerings as part of a comprehensive crisis management plan, offering increased mental health support to satisfy the critical needs of the workforce. Wellness programs take many forms, including programs that promote physical fitness like yoga classes, but can also range from cooking classes to book clubs. Employee expectations regarding EAP services and mental health and wellness programs are likely to continue to evolve post-pandemic. In fact, it is more likely than ever that employees will expect expanded support from employers long after the pandemic is over. 

Employee wellness and team building has always been a critical component of corporate culture, with businesses hosting company outings and retreats long before the start of the pandemic. However, pre-pandemic, employers often implemented EAPs in reaction to mental health concerns and employees notoriously underutilized them. As business leaders prepare for future phases of work, whether it is prolonged remote work, hybrid, or in-person, employers should implement these programs proactively to increase the focus on mental wellness and reduce the stigma around mental health issues in the workplace. An increased focus on wellness provides benefits to not only employees, but also serves as a powerful risk management tool for employers. 

How the Pandemic Changed Wellness Programs

While companies offered EAP services pre-pandemic, many employees were unaware of the programs, did not take advantage of various services, or were concerned about the stigma associated with using the offerings, causing their underutilization. In fact, the Washington, D.C.-based Business Group on Health found that median EAP utilization in 2018 was just 5.5%. As employers shifted to prioritize employee wellness during the pandemic, they began to highlight available programs while encouraging employees to take advantage of them. As a result of the internal marketing of various programs and EAP services, mental health and wellness programs expanded into areas that previously were not covered or offered, including yoga and running clubs, as well as providing traditional mental health support offerings, such as access to therapy and other similar services. 

Additionally, employers must review traditional EAP services and determine if they are still relevant for the business, adjusting accordingly. Business leaders also need to ensure these resources are easily accessible by offering more on-site services and developing an anonymous in-house number to call. Employers and employees alike need to work to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, including by implementing a peer-assisted program to have open conversations about mental health in the workplace. 

There has been an important shift to proactively focus on maintaining employee and organizational wellness instead of reactively implementing programs and providing assistance in response to a mental health crisis. During future phases of work, it is critical that employers continue to make employees aware of the available resources while continually updating internal policies and programs.

Prioritizing Employee Wellness Training and Prevention

Employees face continuing challenges, including heightened levels of stress and emotional fatigue as many transition back to the workplace. Employers can plan for these challenges by maintaining and building individual and team resilience and working to identify areas within the work environment that may prove difficult for employees as they return to the physical workplace. Training frontline supervisors and HR leaders to intervene at the earliest sign of employee difficulty in a meaningful and productive way will also be extremely valuable.

In addition to training supervisors and HR leaders how to intervene, the company should educate them on the early indicators of psychological stress and how best to engage employees who exhibit problematic behaviors in the workplace. Signs of psychological stress can mirror behaviors that are performance-related issues, such as late arrival to meetings, poor work quality, a change in demeanor, appearing uncharacteristically disengaged and distracted, or having difficulty working in a group environment and failing to collaborate with the team. Employee training is one of the most effective ways to identify and mitigate challenges associated with concerning behavior in the organization.

Risks of Failing to Provide and Promote Wellness Programs

It is important to conceptualize mental wellness as being on a continuum, with an employee in crisis on one side and an employee who is thriving on the other. When the workforce thrives, so does productivity, collaboration, creativity and teamwork. When an employee is in crisis, it can lead to problems including declining productivity, absenteeism, and more concerning behaviors including bullying coworkers and general disgruntlement. The organization faces increased risk when this behavior goes unchecked or unnoticed. 

To preempt risks surrounding mental health, employers should consider educating the entire workforce on the effects of stress and mental health issues to reduce stigma and focus on prevention, early identification and intervention. When there is a plan in place to handle mental health issues, employers can provide support and guidance to employees quickly and meaningfully. Employers should ensure open lines of communication to keep employee engagement high and make mental wellness a part of the discussion to further de-stigmatize workplace mental health issues.

Benefits from Providing Wellness Programs

Providing wellness programs and encouraging their use will provide both short- and long-term benefits to individuals, teams and the whole organization. It sends a message to employees that the company values them and believes in a compassionate approach to mental health concerns. The result will likely be increased employee satisfaction, lower attrition, increased productivity and enhanced engagement in the workplace. All contribute to a harmonious workplace and higher quality work.

Business leaders should consider implementing programs that promote employee growth and wellness, including those that cover time management, decluttering and organizational tips, as well as balancing work and childcare to minimize stress and normalize these issues. By partaking in these programs, employees may find comfort in the fact that other employees are experiencing these issues.

Wellness programs have become part of an overarching movement that promotes a safe and secure workplace. Increased workplace engagement, communication and more conversation about mental health offer broader opportunities for employees to report concerns to management as well as look after and monitor their own health and wellbeing. Wellness programs offer an opportunity to improve employees’ wellness while providing another avenue for early identification of problematic issues.

As organizations welcome employees back to the workplace, it is critical that they consider and plan for likely challenges that employees are facing. By reevaluating the organization’s mental health and wellness programs, training employees on early identification and intervention measures, communicating the company’s values and culture regarding mental health and wellness, and reviewing their policies, businesses will be well-positioned to weather future challenges.

Terri Patterson is a principal in Control Risks’ Crisis and Security Consulting practice.