The swell of employee wellness programs is an all-around good thing: healthy workers are happier and more productive, and higher productivity means greater revenue returns for employers. Wellness programs help employees build stamina, tone up, slim down, even learn to manage stress. And thanks to technology, they can track their progress and challenge coworkers to digital games.
After a strenuous work-out, an employee can get off a treadmill, return to the office and put in the best sales day of her career. But can a treadmill raise the productivity of a worker suffering from depression, drug or alcohol addiction, or anxiety?
Probably not, and that’s where Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) come in, says David Pawlowski, LCPC, CEAP, SAP, of CuraLinc Healthcare, a provider of employee assistance programs and health and wellness services.
“EAPs are the only employee benefit specifically designed to address an employee’s mental health and emotional wellbeing,” Pawlowski told HR Dive. Other treatment interventions range from digital applications that improve mood or decrease stress to adjunct products offered by telemedicine providers, says Pawlowski.
“It seems like everyone is beginning to market ‘the’ solution to address behavioral health within the workplace. Unfortunately, most employers don’t realize that their EAP probably includes these components already,” he adds.
Curalinc study results show that EAPs have an advantage over other treatment interventions. The study found that after 30 days of EAP treatment:
- Over 79% of workers had higher productivity.
- Missed work time due to employees’ behavioral health concerns fell by 7.17 hours.
- The number of employees diagnosed with severe or moderate depression decreased by 31.1%.
Mental well-being’s long history in the workplace
Employers are recognizing that employee wellness includes emotional well-being. But clinicians agree that mental health issues like depression and anxiety have always affected the workplace.
The U.S. National Comorbidity Survey, mandated by Congress almost 20 years ago, found that 18% of American workers between 15 and 54 experienced some form of mental disorder in the month before they were polled.
Concerns with emotional well-being in the workplace go as far back as the turn of the 20th century, says Bruce E. Levison, LCSW, MSW, a private practitioner in Middletown, CT. Levison says auto tycoon Henry Ford developed one of the earliest EAP-type programs to make his workers feel good so they would be more productive – and buy his cars.
The Hawthorn studies, carried out in the 1920s by the Western Electric Company, was an early example of the interconnection between well-being and productivity, says Levison. Researchers ran a series of interviews with workers in Western Electric’s suburban Chicago plant to find out if increasing the lighting in their workplace would increase productivity. When the lighting was increased, productivity went up. But when the lighting was decreased to the earlier level, productivity remained high. The study concluded that productivity went up because employees felt valued by the attention they received from the researchers – not because of the lighting, says Levison.
“Edwin H. Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, had a well-being department, as we would call it today, in the company’s Cambridge, MA, headquarters,” says Levison. Land even had a summer place where employees could go, have fun and feel good.
The difference in today’s workplace
What’s changing rapidly is the way employers are responding to mental health concerns, says Pawlowski.
He adds that most workers today are more interested than ever in providing resources that keep employees happy, healthy and productive – especially services that deliver positive outcomes and have a measurable impact on their bottom line.
“In the past, it often took a crisis, such as an employee suicide or an episode of workplace violence, to draw attention to the importance of mental health in the workplace. Employers today are trying to be more proactive,” explains Pawlowski. He said with their EAP’s help, employers are providing resources to address common emotional health concerns like stress before they become bigger issues.
He adds that employers are also relying on EAPs to educate employees and supervisors about the signs of a colleague in distress – and how to respond appropriately. And they’re aligning their policies and practices with their employee-wellbeing goals.
Levison says employers can’t diagnose a worker’s problems or openly point out a problem to a worker. Instead, a supervisor can look for patterns of behavior, such as chronic absenteeism or lateness, and then meet with workers to talk about behaviors and their effect on performance. Levison says alcohol or drug addiction are main causes of mental distress in the workplace, but workers might be distressed over a difficult teenager or suffering from depression.
Levison adds that employees sometimes come to their supervisor and ask for help, but they also have the right to refuse a referral to an EAP.
Like employers, EAP service providers must comply with employment laws and understand which laws protect employees, their health and well-being.