Wellbeing is a discretionary line item on budgets across the Australian business landscape with varying levels of investment. Quality of programs is equally variable – there’s everything from the tokenistic (hello, weekly fruit box delivery) through to the expected as a bare minimum. Employee Assistance Programs sometimes fall into that second category.

Like a common refrain in netball, Employee Assistance Programs or EAPs are there ‘if you need’ but they sit on the sidelines of work life much like the first aid kit on the kitchen bench.

Despite the intention behind the programs, they’re sometimes seen as a reactionary option rather than as a holistic, embedded part of the fabric of a mentally healthy workplace.

EAPs are confidential counselling services made available to employees to work through work or personal issues with a mental health practitioner such as a counsellor, clinical social worker or psychologist.

They’re often outsourced where the organisation becomes a ‘client’ of the service provider. This has its strengths in terms of confidentiality and objectivity but equally this distance makes it difficult to co-create a culture of care when it is so distinctly hands-off.

The program is usually limited in delivery as sessions aren’t ongoing. Once employees reach their four or six session limit, their ‘care’ then enters a referral system. Thus, EAP is focused on a solutions-based approach to tackle a pressing need, rather than an all-encompassing effort to co-create a mentally healthy workplace.

We’ve received anecdotal feedback over the years that indicates people can see the EAP as a tokenistic handball of their (valid) mental health concerns.

They’ve had the courage to be vulnerable in the workplace through either directly sharing with a colleague or manager that they’re having a mental health issue or their behaviour has indicated such, leading their colleague/manager to ask of their wellbeing.

A reminder of access to the EAP without any other cultural scaffolding, sometimes without even a follow up conversation to see if the program has actually been accessed can feel quite one-dimensional at best.

We’ve heard reports that people have actually had managers tell them to access the EAP, but to not tell anyone as it could be detrimental to their career progression!

This isn’t meant as criticism of managers and colleagues who are, at the core, doing the right thing by suggesting a colleague seek professional help. However, if that suggestion is offered within an environment of punishment, judgement (overt or otherwise) or stigma then the culture is limited in its ability to promote a mentally healthy workplace.

WeCARE is an elearning with many on-the-job tools and nudges for behaviour change. It helps people identify and recognise a colleague with a mental health struggle and guide them to seek out appropriate support, sometimes including the organisation’s EAP, as our program is customised. WeCARE connects to EAP and other support services.

This begs the question- what’s the point of EAP without ongoing care? Or to put it less bluntly, how could WeCARE and EAP activate their wonder-twin powers to transform a workplace?

The toolkit in which they build these skills concurrently builds a culture of care, one of the cornerstones of a mentally healthy workplace. EAP is a reactionary, solutions-based approach to supporting an employee which for a number of reasons may be under-utilised in workplaces. When, however, mental health dialogue is openly supported and encouraged, the EAP program becomes embedded and integrated within a culture of care.

People who have accessed professional support through their EAP area are also immersed in a culture of care, where they are able to speak a shared language using tools such as the Mood-o-meter and know their disclosures will be met with psychological safety, and thus received without stigma or judgement or threat of reprisal.

They are also in the context or environment where their colleagues have the skills, confidence and permission to support them when they’re struggling. Training programs like Mental Health First Aid have built the skills of many thousands of people, but the scalability of WeCARE elearning and all the tools for support when at work can make a greater impact on culture.

So what does it mean when WeCARE teams up with the EAP? It means a culture where awareness and focus on mental health remains dominant, where usage of EAP increases as people see the value it brings in both preventing small problems becoming big ones as well as reacting to a specific need.

The benefits that come with the EAP are turbocharged and the investment in the program is maximised. Ultimately it means a mentally healthy workplace with care at the heart. For more information about WeCARE, please complete our contact form and a member of the team will be in touch.

Graeme Cowan is a mental health author and speaker. He is also a Board Director of R U OK?, and host of The Caring CEO podcast which is sponsored by WeCARE365 – simple and scalable learning programs to prevent mental health issues and build a culture of care.

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