Adding an employee assistance program? What you need to know

8 min read
Jasmine Williams

We’ve all had one of those days. You know the ones. Whether you’re dealing with issues in your personal life or stressors at work, sometimes it can all start to feel pretty overwhelming. Whether you're a small, medium or large sized business, an employee assistance program (EAP) can help ensure your employees are bringing their best selves to work.

If you see that one or more of your employees is struggling, it can be difficult to know what you can do to help them. You don’t want to overstep any boundaries, but if an employee is wrestling with issues that are impacting their work or the work of others, then it makes sense to intervene.

Fortunately, there are programs that are designed for this very purpose.

An employee assistance program is a confidential, short-term counseling service for employees.

An EAP typically assists employees with matters such as:

  • Personal issues
  • Job stress
  • Relationship issues
  • Eldercare, childcare, parenting issues
  • Harassment
  • Substance abuse
  • Separation and loss
  • Work-life balance
  • Financial or legal issues
  • Family violence

Having an EAP makes sense for a lot of businesses, particularly high-stress ones. While jobs like police work and firefighting often top the list of most stressful jobs, positions that are governed by strict deadlines — event planning, public relations — can also be really taxing.

There will always be a certain percentage of people working at any company who are prone to stress.

Plus, as you can tell from the list above, a lot of the issues that EAPs handle are caused by stressors in an employee’s personal life.

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11 things to ask an EAP provider

Here are the things to check when comparing employee assistance programs:

  1. Experience level.
  2. Location.
  3. Scope of services.
  4. Means of handling inquiries.
  5. Process for referrals.
  6. Availability.
  7. Counsellors.
  8. Additional support.
  9. Promotion of services.
  10. Fee structure.
  11. Reporting.

Compare your top 3 EAP providers on these factors and one should rise to the top.

How EAPs work

Employee Assistance Program Positive Affirmations on Fence
A good employee assistance program provides the right help at the right moment.
Photo: Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Typically, the process of an employee working with an EAP begins with a phone call with a referral agent. A referral agent could be someone:

  • Within your business, such as a health or human resources professional
  • An employee who has received EAP training
  • An external resource

Referral agents must be familiar with available community resources, including social, financial and mental health services as well as professional counsellors or ministers.

The referral agent’s job is to define the problem and refer the person to an appropriate resource.

When the employee voluntarily contacts an EAP provider, a confidential record is opened. Depending on the severity of the problem and the capabilities of the EAP personnel, they will decide if the problem can be handled by the provider or if they need to be referred to an outside resource like a substance abuse program.

This assessment, typically done in the form of an interview, will occur within a set period of time (usually 24 to 48 hours) unless the situation is deemed an emergency that requires immediate action.

How to find a good EAP provider for your small business

To locate an EAP provider, we recommend you start with a good old-fashioned Google search. Try a search like “EAP service providers [your city name]” to start building a list of potential options.

Once you’ve compiled a solid list, you can assess the businesses based on the following criteria:

1. Experience level

How many years has the provider been serving clients? Do they serve other businesses in your industry? Can they provide a list of references?

2. Location

Are they close by? Are they familiar with your local community and its resources? What online diagnosis or consultation services do they offer (if any)?

3. Scope of services

Do they offer:

  • Stress management
  • Childcare
  • Eldercare
  • Wellness coaching
  • Crisis counseling
  • Support for managers and supervisors

Think about all of your employees — the whole range of needs — when interviewing potential EAP providers.

4. Means of handling inquiries

Would the provider offer an 800 number, referral network or on-site service?

5. Process for referrals

How does the provider decide where and to whom they will refer clients? Are referral agencies vetted in any way? How often is the list of referral sources updated?

6. Availability

How long do they take to return calls? How many staff members are available during typical and non-typical business hours? What services are available in non-typical business hours — for example, how do they accommodate swing shift employees (if applicable to you)?

7. Counsellors

How many counsellors are provided per employee? What are the backgrounds of the counsellors (i.e. education, credentials, years of experience, etc.)?

8. Additional support

What kinds of return-to-work, aftercare or support services do they offer after initial treatment?

Employee Assistance Program Man Rubbing Eyes

9. Promotion of services

What types of publicity and promotion of EAP services do they offer? Do they make pamphlets or posters available for distribution in your business? Does their website have a secure client portal?

10. Fee structure

Do they charge a flat fee or do they price based on factors like average usage statistics or the number of employees in your business?

11. Reporting

What types of reports are provided to the employer (e.g. number of referrals, what types, outcomes, etc.) and how often?

The benefits of an employee assistance program

While implementing EAPs take a significant financial investment, they offer clear benefits to both the health of your workforce and your company’s bottom line.

Employee Assistance Program Two Women Talking
EAPs pay off in increased productivity, fewer absences and improved morale.

Here are just a few of the many advantages of an EAP:

Improved productivity

Dealing with personal issues, family problems or substance abuse can often lead to a drop in productivity at work. Supporting an employee through these tough times will not only help improve their mental health but also contribute to the overall growth and health of your business.

Reduced company costs

EAPs are designed to reduce the impact that social, psychological or physical problems have on employees, which in turn reduces the financial impact on the company.

Increase in workplace morale

A happy and healthy employee is a productive and effective one. Plus, when an employee feels supported by their employer, they’re more invested in their work and more committed to achieving good results.

Reduced absenteeism

As the saying goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Providing employees with effective prevention and treatment options helps ensure that they don’t need to take as much time off work.

Reduced accidents at work

A person suffering from stress will often have difficulty concentrating and focusing on the task at hand. EAPs look after the mental health needs of your employees so they can function at the required level.

Qualities of a successful employee assistance program

An EAP is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of program. A successful employee assistance program should:

  • Be strictly confidential
  • Be open to employees and their immediate families
  • Be recognized by both management and employees as a priority
  • Have buy-in from all levels of the organization
  • Have clear policies and procedures that are upheld by management and employees
  • Have both formal and informal referral procedures
  • Be periodically evaluated to ensure that the needs of both the employee and the employer are being met

If you really want to make your EAP a success, the number one thing you need to do is make sure your employees know about it and use it.

It’s important that you are familiar with your EAP so you can authentically advocate for it.

It’s not good enough to give your employees a 1-800 number when they join the company and never mention it again.

Many people still have a negative perception of mental health services in general and your employees might not feel comfortable taking advantage of an EAP at first. But if you position your EAP as a way to help make your employees’ lives easier, you’ll reap the benefits in the form of a happier, more productive workforce.


One of the great things about an EAP is its ability to connect employees directly with professional services in a private manner. The first appointment will usually occur within a few days. This means that your employees are getting the help they need quickly, preventing a potential crisis and minimising lost productivity.

Follow these tips to find a competent EAP provider for your small business — it pays off.