An employee assistance program (EAP) helps employees manage personal problems and mental health issues that may interfere with their work life.

Depending on the situation, the person’s participation in an EAP may be voluntary or mandatory.

In this article, we explain what an EAP program is and the types of services it provides. We also outline the benefits of EAP counseling for both employees and employers and provide tips on how to access it.

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A EAP counselor may help a person resolve workplace conflicts .

An EAP provides help and support to employees experiencing issues that may affect their work performance. In this way, EAPs benefit employees as well as their employers.

An EAP may help an employee deal with various issues, such as:

  • workplace conflicts
  • workplace-related trauma
  • mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety
  • substance abuse issues
  • relationship problems, such as marital conflict

In most cases, an employee can voluntarily refer themselves to an EAP. In rare cases, an employer may make such participation mandatory — for example, if a police officer shoots someone or an employee has a substance use disorder that affects their work performance.

An EAP counselor contracts with an EAP to support workers through difficult or challenging periods.

In some cases, an employer uses an in-house counselor. For example, a large first responder organization or public service organization may have a dedicated on-site counselor.

In most cases, employers contract with outside counseling services. A person may be able to choose their own counselor but only from a list of counselors that the EAP plan covers.

EAP counselors are usually licensed therapists, which means that they have at least a Master’s degree and have met state licensing requirements.

However, some employers contract with a firm where crisis counselors without advanced credentials answer initial phone calls. If a caller needs further care, the counselor can refer the caller to a qualified therapist.

An EAP counselor can provide a range of services, including:

  • mental health counseling
  • substance abuse support
  • evaluations for mental health and substance abuse
  • group or marriage counseling

However, a person’s employer may only pay for certain issues. For instance, if an employee seeks help for job-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their employer may not be willing to pay for counseling for unrelated issues.

Additionally, an employer may limit the number of counseling sessions that a person can have.

In most cases, EAP counselors offer short-term care, as opposed to counseling that spans many months or years.

An EAP program can help both employers and employees.

Some potential benefits for employers include:

  • workers who are more productive due to receiving support for mental health issues
  • reduced need to fire or discipline otherwise productive employees due to issues that affect their workplace performance
  • fewer employee absences
  • a company that is more attractive to potential employees due to having an EAP in place

Some potential benefits for employees include:

  • feeling less stigma about seeking treatment for mental health issues
  • feeling encouraged to seek earlier help for mental health issues
  • receiving more affordable access to mental healthcare
  • receiving mandatory EAP counseling that helps them get support for mental health issues that they may otherwise ignore

The process for accessing an EAP counselor varies from one workplace to another.

There are two main routes to accessing an EAP counselor: self-referral and mandatory referral.

Self-referral

Most workplaces allow their employees to refer themselves for counseling. To do this, a person should contact their human resources (HR) department and ask about the process for using the EAP. A person can then review a list of counselors and call their chosen counselor to schedule an appointment.

When employees self-refer, the EAP program does not provide any data on care to their employer. However, it may provide anonymized information that allows the employer to determine the number of employees who sought care for certain issues during the year.

Mandatory referral

Sometimes, an employer may make it compulsory for an employee to participate in an EAP. In such cases, the counselor may provide certain information to the employer, such as verification that the employee attended counseling. However, a counselor cannot legally provide further information to the employer without the employee’s consent.

While an employer can make participation in an EAP a condition of continued employment, they cannot force attendance if a person is willing to quit or lose their job.

Before beginning counseling, a person should ask their counselor the following questions:

  • What, if any, information will you give to my employer?
  • Are there any exceptions to confidentiality rules?
  • Are there limits on what I can talk about in sessions for which my employer pays?
  • How many sessions can I have?

An EAP is different than a counselor whom a person sees through their employer-sponsored insurance. If both these options are available, an employee may wish to weigh the benefits and risks of each. If a person seeks counseling through their insurance, their employer will not know about it, but the person may have to pay more.

Some other options that employees may have access to include:

  • other workplace assistance programs, such as conflict resolution or mediation sessions through an HR department
  • support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous
  • in-house support groups that the employer sponsors, especially if many employees struggle with similar issues

An EAP can be an affordable way to access mental health support for workplace-related issues or issues that affect work performance. Examples of such issues include workplace conflicts, substance use issues, and depression.

EAP programs offer quality care from licensed mental health professionals. However, the specific rules that each program must follow vary from state to state and from one employer to another.

People who wish to receive counseling through an EAP should contact their HR department for further information on how to access this service.