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What is an Employee Assistance Program?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 16, 2024
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An employee assistance program is a health benefit offered by many large employers. The employee assistance program provider offers confidential access to support services designed to assist employees with personal issues that may affect their work performance. The popularity of these services has been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s, when several studies linked personal issues to reduced productivity at work.

Through this service, employees and their immediate family have access to counselors, social workers, psychologists, financial and legal advisers. The list of issues that the employee assistant program offer support for varies, but typically includes substance abuse, gambling, relationship issues, major life event counseling, and crisis support.

The employee assistance program provider typically relies on a network of independent professionals who accept referrals and payment from the program. These professional counselors and therapists are vetted through a stringent process to ensure a standard level of expertise. This standard varies by provider, as does the thoroughness of the therapist vetting process.

In order to access the services, employees or their family members call a toll-free telephone number. They provide the name of their employer, personnel number and then describe the support they are looking for. The service connects them with a list of two or three counselors in their area who are available to assist. The assistance program provider collects no other information and all contact with the service provider is confidential and cannot be released to the employer.

Due to the confidential nature of the service, the reporting provided to the employer is at a summary level. In an annual report, the service provider lists the total number of employee contacts, level of activity, and the level of satisfaction with the services provided. The employees names and not included in the data provided to the employer. This process allows both the employer and the service provider to maintain the confidentiality of the employee.

Although some jurisdictions have licensing requirements for assistance program service providers, it is not consistent across all areas. There are some concerns about how an employee or employer would be able to address any dissatisfaction with the services provided by the employee assistance program in light of this situation. The issue of liability and how to address any breach of confidentiality is not clear.

Many employee assistance programs are members of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). This association publishes a regular journal, conducts research, and provides information and support to the service providers in more than 30 countries around the world. Through their conferences and seminars, the association works hard to improve the knowledge about the benefits of an employee assistance plan and to improve internal practices within the associations themselves.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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