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The Future of Employee Assistance Programs: Why We Need Proactive Occupational Health Strategies

Published 28 June 2024

This post first appeared on the NextGen EHS website

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) have become essential in tackling workplace mental health issues. However, with mental health crises on the rise, it’s time to rethink our approach and start with proactive occupational health strategies.

Employees are the most valuable asset any business can have, so shifting from reactive to proactive strategies is crucial for both the well-being of employees and the sustainability of businesses.

The Evolution of Employee Assistance Programs

Karl Bennett’s article, “How can we secure the future of the EAP?” published on May 8, 2024, highlights a significant transformation in EAPs.

These programs are no longer just support helplines but are evolving into essential networks addressing complex psychological issues. Driven by gaps in NHS services, EAP usage has surged to over 12%, a notable increase from the previous 4%-10% range.

The Strain on EAP Resources

This increased demand strains EAP resources and financially burdens employers. In 2022, 68% of EAP participants required counselling services, highlighting the need for a sustainable, early intervention-focused EAP model.

More importantly, a proactive intervention approach means that businesses have effectively risk assessed and prevented or significantly mitigated pressures in the workplace before they become problems, thereby reducing the reliance on EAP services.

Proactive Occupational Health Strategies for Workplace Mental Health

To address these challenges, businesses must adopt proactive strategies for workplace mental health. Research underscores the value of being proactive in occupational safety and health management.

By focusing on factors such as job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and overall work environment quality, businesses can take pre-emptive steps to enhance employee well-being and reduce the likelihood of stress and related issues. Here are some key approaches:

1. Enhanced Work Environment Assessment

Conduct thorough assessments to identify psychosocial risks—such as job demands, communication culture, line manager support, and role clarity. Implement strategic changes to mitigate stress and bolster employee resilience.

Use perception surveys to identify these risks and suggest effective controls. Involving employees in the risk assessment process through these surveys is an excellent way to achieve this.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) emphasises the need for a proactive approach in addressing workplace stress, focusing on the prevention of stress through identifying and managing these pressures proactively. Unfortunately, many businesses are only addressing these issues after they have already become significant problems for the employer.

2. Leadership and Management Training

Train leaders and line managers to recognise early signs of mental distress and facilitate supportive mental health dialogues. Include strategies for managing workloads and improving conditions to alleviate stress.

HSE’s Management Standards approach centres around six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, can lead to poor health and decreased productivity.

The emphasis is on a proactive partnership between employers and employees to identify and mitigate stressors before they escalate.

3. Cultivating a Supportive Culture

Develop policies that foster work-life balance and reduce mental health stigma. Create an environment where employees feel valued, significantly reducing stress escalation.

Sane and Sound: Your Guide to Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace, makes it clear that managing mental health is a legal responsibility under Health and Safety legislation.

Employers must protect the mental health of their employees, just as they do physical health, under the following legislation:

  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – Requires employers to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities.
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – Mandates employers to take measures to control that risk.

While the responsibility for managing mental health falls under Health and Safety legislation, health and safety teams are often stretched beyond capacity, taking on more and more roles.

This isn’t to say that Health and Safety shouldn’t be involved; of course, they should. As health and safety professionals, we are skilfully equipped for risk management, but it needs a collective effort from the entire business.

This is where Occupational Health (OH) comes in to help take on some of the strategic and assessment responsibilities. OH can work alongside Health and Safety (H&S) teams to develop policies that promote work-life balance and reduce mental health stigma.

By creating an environment where employees feel valued, stress escalation can be significantly reduced.

4. Regular Mental Health Screenings and Awareness

Integrate mental health screenings into regular health assessments to enable early interventions. Hold awareness sessions to educate employees on mental health and available resources.

The key is to encourage employees to be more open and talk about mental health, making it part of the business culture where mental health is openly discussed rather than a taboo topic.

Studies show that an integrated approach to workplace mental health, combining both proactive and reactive strategies, is beneficial. Tools and instruments that facilitate this approach can help organisations create healthier workplace environments.

5. Feedback and Continuous Improvement

Establish a feedback loop to continuously evaluate and refine health policies, ensuring the organisation adapts to changing employee needs effectively. OH professionals can facilitate this process, keeping the organisation responsive and proactive.

Regularly seek feedback from employees and make perception surveys part of the business culture, ensuring they don’t become mere tick-box exercises.

Instead of conducting an annual survey, ask fewer questions more regularly. This approach takes less time to complete, becomes ingrained in everyday tasks, is easier to manage, and allows for timely feedback and action. Conducting one long survey every year misses vital opportunities throughout the year and delays action for up to 12 months.

We suggest asking a couple of open questions every couple of months. For example:

January – End of February

  1. In the last meeting you attended, if you offered your opinion, what was the response like from your colleagues?
  2. In your immediate team, how do you feel about the way your team works?

The Vital Role of Occupational Health

There is so much to do and so much that can be achieved in a short space of time just by talking and engaging with employees, but it can’t become the effort of just one team. Strengthening the argument for a more proactive role for Occupational Health (OH) in businesses becomes even more compelling.

OH professionals can lead proactive mental health management by conducting thorough assessments to identify psychosocial risks and implementing strategic changes. This helps mitigate stress and bolster employee resilience, reducing the need for reactive EAP interventions.

Training leaders to recognise early signs of mental distress and facilitate supportive mental health dialogues is crucial. OH professionals can develop and deliver these training programs, equipping managers with the tools to manage workloads effectively and create a supportive work environment.

Integrating mental health screenings into regular health assessments enables early interventions. OH professionals are well-positioned to conduct these screenings and hold awareness sessions to educate employees on mental health and available resources.

The Case for Increased OH Integration

Many businesses do not employ OH professionals on a full-time basis, often due to cost concerns or a lack of awareness of the benefits. However, integrating OH more closely with H&S teams can maximise resources, improve employee well-being and productivity, and reduce long-term costs.

If your business is fortunate enough to have an OH professional working full-time, but it’s a team of one, and external recruitment for experienced professionals is challenging, consider upskilling someone from within or supporting an external candidate with aspirations to enter this profession.

There is a mentoring scheme set up for those considering a career in Occupational Health, supported by the National School of Occupational Health (NSOH) and the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM).

Conclusion

While bridging the gap in supply and demand for OH professionals may be challenging, businesses can start by leveraging their existing resources more effectively.

Encouraging collaboration between OH and H&S teams and adopting a proactive approach to mental health can lead to significant benefits. By doing so, businesses can better manage workplace mental health, reduce dependence on EAPs, and create a healthier, more productive workforce.

Championing these preventative strategies, OH and H&S professionals can substantially reduce dependence on EAPs, steering towards a sustainable mental health management model that emphasises early intervention and addresses root causes. This forward-thinking approach not only enhances employee well-being but also drives greater productivity, engagement, and resilience across the workforce.

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References

  1. HSE’s Proactive Approach to Workplace Stress: HSE Management Standards
  2. Management Standards for Tackling Work-Related Stress: HSE Management Standards Approach
  3. An Integrated Approach to Workplace Mental Health: Workplace Mental Health Strategies
  4. Proactive Occupational Safety and Health Management: Occupational Health Research

Jonathan Wensley | Linkedin

I’m a seasoned EHS professional with over 15 years of diverse sector experience. CIEH accredited BSc Hons, Chartered Membership of IOSH, Affiliate Membership of IEMA, and registration as a Consultant with the OSHCR.

This post first appeared on the NextGen EHS website

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