If there is a trend in America you can bet your bottom dollar that soon enough it will catch on over here. Just think how popular McDonald’s hamburgers, Levi’s jeans and popstar Britney Spears have become – all brought in from across the pond.
Another recent import is the employee assistance programme (EAP). US companies are becoming more focused on caring for their employees and this has begun to rub off on British bosses.
Over the last few years EAPs have really taken off in the UK and there are now many employers that provide staff with this service. These EAP companies are keen to expand their business, with some looking to the intermediary market for assistance.
Providing an EAP service can be advantageous for both an employer and its staff. Most EAPs provide a confidential telephone counselling service and the option of up to eight face-to-face sessions. The services usually have a dual function. They can help employees cope with emotional problems such as work stress or a family bereavement. The EAP can also assist employees making decisions about important financial issues such as choosing the best pension option or how to cope with a debt problem. The service lets employees work out all sorts of issues they do not feel they can discuss with their manager or human resources (HR) department.
The services are also a useful monitoring tool for employers. Although the phone calls are completely confidential, most EAP companies provide a report summarising the major issues their employees are concerned about. The service can also improve productivity and workplace efficiency as it can help employees feel more comfortable with their jobs.
All the EAP providers may seem to offer similar services but a closer look reveals important differences. The way the providers charge their clients and the level of reporting they provide are two important factors to consider when choosing an EAP provider.
The Employee Assistance Programme Association (EAPA) is the body that looks after EAP providers in the UK. Chaired by David Robinson, the association now has 13 members. It aims to provide support for the professional development of its members, set national standards of practice and professional guidelines for EAPs, and promote and develop EAPs in the UK.
Robinson is pleased with the recent development of the EAP market in Britain. “Business is generally buoyant at the moment,” he says.
He believes the possibility of a recession and the tragedies in New York and Washington on 11 September will actually give an extra boost to the EAP market.
Employees concerned for their own safety or having to cope with the death of friends or family can benefit from the counselling services offered by an EAP. “As a result of the last couple of weeks, use of the services has risen,” he says.
But even before the terrorist attacks, this has been growing in recent years, says Robinson.
“There has been an increased awareness of issues such as workplace stress by British companies that has led them to realise the advantages of providing an EAP service,” he says.
Independent Counselling & Advisory Services (ICAS), based in Milton Keynes, is the largest EAP provider in the UK, with a 30 per cent market share. As the EAP industry grows, ICAS is looking to intermediaries to give an extra boost to its business.
Business development director Colin Whitehead says the company hopes to forge closer links with independent financial advisers (IFAs) and intermediaries in the near future.
“We’re seeing an increase in interest from intermediaries but we don’t get very much business concluded through them” he says.
“I’m very keen to develop this as a distribution channel. We will be holding a forum on 2 November as part of our move to encourage more intermediaries to understand the EAP market.”
One problem that has arisen with EAPs is that employers often do not understand exactly what is provided by the service, according to Jenny Hawker, an occupational health consultant at consultancy William M Mercer. When staff come to use the EAP, advisers may not have the financial expertise required to deal with the issues.
She says: “I think it’s important the employer knows exactly what they’re getting. They need to be clear about which services are provided to their staff and what information will be reported back to them.”
Intermediary Penny O’Nions, the principal at the Onion group, has cited this issue. “We tend to get people using EAPs for pensions or debt advice. Often the adviser tells the employee they cannot deal with the particular issue and they should speak to an IFA,” she says.
O’Nions says there have been times when an employee with debt problems has come to see her after speaking to an EAP helpline and she feels obliged to give free advice.
Whitehead agrees with Hawker and argues that employers need to understand the role of an EAP.
“An EAP does not provide financial advice – we are not IFAs. The information we provide about investment issues is more about explaining the differences rather than advising on investments,” Whitehead says.
He explains that ICAS has a database of IFAs in each locality. “We identify two or three IFAs in the area they live in but we do not recommend anyone in particular,” he says.
Increasingly, EAPs are being seen as a complement to private medical insurance. British companies are beginning to see that an EAP service can be offered to their staff as an extra prevention against illnesses such as depression.
Whitehead also hopes to explore this as a further boost to his company’s business. “We have talked to providers about a joint package but there are already a few that provide their own EAP service to their clients,” he says.
PPP healthcare is one of the larger health insurers that provide an EAP service. As well as the requisite helpline for financial, legal and emotional issues, PPP offers various extras that can help the company’s management. These include training services and support for managers in identifying and dealing with difficult situations at work.
The services provided by an EAP are not unique. An employee could just as well call up a stress helpline like the Samaritans or seek legal advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau.
So what is so attractive about an EAP? Whitehead says that one important difference between an EAP helpline and a service such as the Samaritans is that the EAP counsellors are all trained professionals rather than volunteers. He also argues that “the service is very much aimed at the company”, and therefore is more focused on resolving work-related issues.
According to the EAPA, the UK’s second-largest EAP provider is a company called PPC UK, with a 20 per cent market share. It targets the upper ends of the EAP market, providing services only for companies with over 200 employees. Like ICAS, it sells its programmes through intermediaries.
Jeremy Campbell, the director of sales and marketing at PPC, says the company has a different perspective to other providers in that it specifically aims to integrate the service by targeting both employees and managers.
A major problem for an EAP provider is the reluctance of staff to use the service. Hawker says: “There’s often a very low uptake of an EAP helpline. People don’t want to use a service that is associated with an employer, even though the confidentiality is assured.”
PPC has recognised this problem and has recently developed a unique service – an interactive website called PPC balance. The site is aimed at employees who may be reluctant to pick up the phone and call a counsellor even though they realise there are issues that need to be resolved.
“The website is specifically targeted at males under the age of 35 who may not feel comfortable calling a helpline,” Campbell says. It helps identify if an employee has a problem. He can then email a counsellor and ask for someone to call him back at a certain time when he knows he will be able to talk. “The service was only set up a few months ago but we’ve had an excellent response so far,” Campbell boasts.
As we have been told by many economists over the last few weeks, the possibility of a recession is increasing, so it must be asked how the economic downturn will affect the EAP market.
Campbell believes EAPs could prove even more important if an economic downturn hits the UK. He says: “There’s always a place for an EAP. A recession can lead to people being worried about organisational changes within their company, so we can help out with those sorts of problems.”
Ralph Mulryne, the practice director at intermediary Towry Law Healthcare, echoes this view. “If a recession bites, I would expect EAPs to come through,” he says.
Despite any problems, the EAP industry is continually expanding and can provide an opportunity for intermediaries to offer an extra service to their group clients. A recession could even help the sales of the EAP products as employees become even more concerned about their position in the company.
To contact the EAPA log on to www.eapa.org.uk or call 0800 783 7616.
The website contains information about all the EAP providers that are members of the association and links to their websites.