What is an employee assistance programme (EAP)?

What is an employee assistance programme (EAP)?

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As the boundaries between home and work life become increasingly blurred, staff well-being is no longer a subject that’s off-limits. Today, there’s an expectation for businesses to step up and help their employees cope with the pressures of everyday life and manage their mental health.

And that’s what an Employee Assistance Programme does. In short, EAPs help staff come to terms with any problems they may be experiencing in their lives and offer advice and support to resolve them as quickly as possible. EAPs work on the principle that a problem shared is a problem halved, giving employees access to free, impartial advice from experienced counsellors and healthcare professionals. Without this, employees could become vulnerable to stress and anxiety if they’re struggling to come to terms with the challenges of everyday life and trying to deal with things on their own. Essentially, EAPs bring clarity and a sympathetic ear when it’s most needed.

What are the key triggers of stress and anxiety?

What sort of problems are we talking about? Life today is unpredictable; it’s also busy and sometimes stressful to the extent that finding the right balance is difficult. For many families, financial problems are the biggest source of worry. With spiralling energy costs, higher mortgage payments, mounting debt or a loss of income, families can find it hard to adjust to changing circumstances and need help to manage their finances. This can also affect their relationships, which, for other reasons, might be fragile. The stresses of bringing up children or caring for elderly relatives can also take their toll.

If there’s a temptation to label all this as normal ‘day-to-day stuff’ and an expectation to get on with it regardless, there’s always a flip side: There will be inevitable health consequences if an uncompromising regime goes on for too long.

There’s another factor – how we react when the unexpected happens. This could be a bereavement or a critical incident such as an assault or a car accident. Perhaps an impending court case or custody battle? Events such as these can have a profound effect on our mental health, from the initial shock and trauma, to the reality of dealing with the fallout. And for some people, this might be too difficult to take on board.

These things don’t happen in isolation and the cumulative impact of ‘dealing with life’ sometimes puts our physical and mental health under too much pressure. Something’s got to give and, when it does, we need someone to step in and help.

How does EAP work?

First up, EAP is free, confidential and available 24/7. Employees using the service have the assurance that whatever is discussed will remain private and won’t be reported back to their employer. EAP is a telephone helpline and counselling service designed to support employees who may be struggling to cope with personal or work-related issues and, as a result, be experiencing mental health problems.

Sadly, there’s still something of a stigma surrounding mental health. While times are changing, some people find it hard to open up about how they feel, afraid that it will be seen as a weakness or an admission of failure. And that’s why services like EAP are so important. With experienced counsellors, mental health practitioners and lifestyle coaches on hand, employees will feel more at ease to chat about their issues.

Here's how it works. First, employees can phone the helpline, provide a few details and arrange a call-back at a time that suits them. They’ll then get a call from a counsellor (usually on the same day) to carry out an initial assessment; to establish the nature and extent of the problem and recommend the best course of action. From that point, the employee will receive counselling (usually up to six sessions by phone, video or face-to-face) or be referred to another specialist, for example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or lifestyle coaching. Following these sessions, a wrap-up call is arranged to ensure the coping strategies discussed are working and the employee is better placed to move forward and self-manage their issue.

Without vital services like EAP, employees would be left to cope on their own or resort to counselling services that are expensive or involve a lengthy waiting time for an appointment.

Who benefits from EAP?

It’s a win-win situation: EAPs benefit employees and their employers. It’s no secret that a healthy, committed workforce is essential if a business is to achieve – and surpass – its goals. That’s why companies around the world invest in healthcare and thrive on the results. Also, because health and well-being services are now regarded as a must-have company benefit, employers must look beyond an attractive salary and the promise of career progression to attract and retain the best talent. Findings from our 2022 360° Global Well-Being Survey: Exhausted by work – the employer opportunity told us that 56% of respondents said the type of medical plan offered would be a decisive factor in choosing their next job, with 48% looking for services to help them lead a healthier lifestyle. It’s interesting to note that only 16% currently have access to healthy living services.

Services like EAP prove that an organisation values and cares for its employees. Word travels fast. With a positive company culture, brand reputation is immediately enhanced. There are other advantages. By helping their employees stay fit and healthy, workplace productivity and efficiency increase and the cost of absenteeism drops. This represents a healthy return on investment and is a business decision that’ll deliver long-term economic and operational benefits. Results from our 2020 Health & Wellness in the Workplace Report showed that mental health interventions returned on average an impressive 17-fold ROI. So, this is money well spent.

What’s the alternative? Employees may dutifully turn up for work, but if they’re feeling stressed or dealing with an unexpected bereavement, they won’t be at their best and may not be capable of meeting the standards expected by clients and colleagues.

When mental disorders persist, they become harder and more costly to treat. However, with speedy intervention and effective coping strategies, recovery can be quick and permanent. Employee Assistance Programmes target help and expert support when it’s needed most, empowering employees to deal with their issues and feel better about life.


If you’d like to discover more about our health plans, talk to us today. We are responsible for the healthcare requirements of over 180 million customers and patients worldwide and lead the market in developing cost-effective, sustainable plans that can be customised to include the products, services and tools each client needs.

Cigna Connect is our latest solution. Designed for small businesses, our Connect plans fill a gap in the market for simple, affordable and flexible health insurance that offers outstanding cover and great value for money.

Discover what makes Cigna Connect the choice of SMEs around the world

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