Sector Report: Anxiety and the Employee Assistance Program

By Sarah Fister Gale

May. 17, 2018

American workers are stressed, and for a lot of reasons.

The American Psychological Association’s 2017 “State of the Nation” report found that health care, financial concerns and trust in the government top the list of stress-inducing issues. It also found respondents are more likely to report symptoms of stress, which include anxiety, anger and fatigue, than they have in the past.

This is not good news for employers, said LuAnn Heinen, lead expert on employee assistance programs for the National Business Group on Health, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization focused on national health-policy issues.

“Stress and anxiety are huge issues in the workplace and it is spreading globally,” she said. Stress can have a huge impact on productivity and performance, and drive up absenteeism and turnover, all of which affects the bottom line — which is why EAP programs are so important.

EAPs were originally designed to address employee drug and alcohol abuse problems, but they have expanded over the years to cover many aspects of mental health, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and stress, Heinen said. These programs can have a positive impact, but only if employees feel confident taking advantage of them.

Despite more open dialog about the importance of mental health, many employees can be embarrassed to take advantage of these services. “It’s important to destigmatize their use and to communicate that anyone can benefit from an EAP,” Heinen said. “For a lot of people, just a few conversations can be enough.”

Companies can foster a more open attitude around mental health by training managers to identify signs of stress or other issues, and by supporting peer advocacy and employee groups to support use of mental health programs, said Barb Veder, vice president of clinical services and research lead for Morneau Shepell, an HR services and technology company headquartered in Toronto. She also encourages benefits managers to think about the barriers of use for EAPs, and to work with their vendors to ensure they are offering a variety of platforms, education materials and communication strategies to encourage its use. For example, offering multiple digital services including apps, telecounselling and remote support tools provides greater flexibility in how these services are accessed and can reduce some of the anxiety around being found out, she said.

These varying EAP platforms also address the way different generations want to take advantage of support services. “Millennials are all about ease of access,” Veder said. They want multiple ways to access information, including videos, online content and self-paced solutions that don’t require any human intervention, whereas older workers may still prefer to talk to someone on the phone or face-to-face. “You need to design programs that adapt to these needs, and offer many ways to access information,” she said.

Millennials’ digital upbringing also impacts the kinds of EAP services they may use.  This generation tends to feel more lonely and isolated, compared to prior generations, in part because they spend so much time online. A 2017 study found that young adults who use a lot of social media feel more socially isolated than their peers. Millennials also report higher stress levels than other generations according to the APA report. Providing services that address these issues and target younger workers may make the service offerings more relevant. “It’s important to be mindful of these dynamics, and to create programs that address these issues,” Veder said.

Heinen agreed. “When you create an employee centric program that provides access to services based on learning style and lifestyle preferences, the likelihood that employees will use the program is higher.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago. Comment below or email

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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