As adoption of employee assistance programs grows, member education and referral become even more essential to utilization.

More self-insured employers than ever offer an employee assistance program (EAP), according to an analysis of benefits offered by Quantum Health’s more than 400 clients.

Adoption of EAPs by large and mid-size employers topped 97% this year, up from 83% in 2019. Among smaller employers, more than 75% offer an EAP, up from 64% just two years ago.

EAPs have long been a popular benefit among self-insured employers. The recent uptick in EAP adoption likely is a response to growing mental health challenges faced by employees and their families.

EAPs have evolved to include features such as legal services, financial planning, and guidance for caregiving and eldercare. However, mental health counseling remains core to the typical EAP. In fact, the fixed number of free counseling sessions included in many EAPs is one of the primary ways today’s employers support the mental well-being of employees.

Barriers to EAP utilization

Unfortunately, members facing stressful life, work or family situations — even an emotional or substance-use crisis — often don’t use the EAP. They might not be thinking clearly about all their benefits options. They might not understand the confidentiality and coverage details, or simply forgot about the EAP since hearing it mentioned during open enrollment.

In addition, research shows many consumers fear there’s a stigma associated with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. In the workplace, that concern can block employees from seeking information about, much less using, their mental health benefits.

Engagement as the gateway to EAP awareness and utilization

Unlike a typical member services function provided by an insurance carrier, Quantum Health’s consumer healthcare navigation and care coordination model proactively educates and refers members across the full spectrum of their benefits, including the EAP.

Supporting EAP awareness and appropriate referrals is a focus area within our core service. It’s also often an objective of the employer-specific engagement strategies we develop and pursue with client HR teams.

Confidentiality and data protections add complexity to any study of EAP usage. Still, several indicators show that clients and Quantum Health, working together, are driving both EAP education and utilization.

  • EAP ranks among the top four benefits to which our Care Coordinators refer members. Across all clients, 8.5% of referrals are to an EAP. Among larger clients, who often prioritize EAP utilization, it’s 17%.
  • When a member is on a significant healthcare journey — living with a chronic condition, undergoing major surgery, receiving cancer treatment — we assign a Personal Care Guide nurse to provide one-on-one clinical support and benefits guidance. In building a trusted relationship with the member, our PCG nurse routinely listens and probes for indicators of the member’s mental state. When appropriate, the nurse conducts a Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) screening, a first step in assessing whether a member should be referred for clinical evaluation and diagnosis. Analysis shows that 25% of members given a PHQ-2 screening also received EAP education and referral.
  • To gauge the impact of referrals, one client recently had their EAP vendor compare a list of members referred to the EAP with the vendor’s utilization data. A significant percentage of referred members took advantage of least one mental counseling session. We’re now in year two of utilization measurement.
  • Analysis of Quantum Health’s referrals to telehealth services finds that when a Care Coordinator referred members, they were eight times more likely to use the telehealth benefit than members who weren’t referred. That same degree of impact can’t automatically be assumed for EAP referrals. However, our relationship-driven approach to benefits education and referral — responsive in real time to each member’s unique, in-the-moment needs and concerns — clearly can have meaningful impact on benefits utilization.

Employers and consultants are turning to EAPs more than ever to provide mental health support to members. That means it’s important to overcome obstacles to awareness and utilization. The right approach to engagement — human-centered, combining expertise and empathy — can be a catalyst to ensure members are consistently educated about and referred to this increasingly important benefit.

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