“Free” EAP Is Really “Pretend” EAP

Mark Sagor

I am completely amazed that there has not been more debate surrounding the emergence of the so-called “free” EAP that is being offered as a throw in by some carriers as a way to attract business to their more profitable insurance products. Let’s start by calling this “free” EAP by its real name which is “pretend” EAP.

“Pretend” EAPs offer a fig leaf to organizations who, as a cost-saving measure, decide to take away their employees’ EAP benefit but don’t want to risk saying that they are ending a service which supports employees and family members. Organizations that don’t already have an EAP are attracted by the prospect of adding an employee benefit without incurring any additional expense.  The insurance carrier, who has no professional allegiance to, or true understanding of, the kind of partnership quality EAPs establish with their clients, is not going to warn them about the potential risks of introducing a “pretend” EAP.

The carrier does not disclose that the only way for them to make a “pretend” EAP financially viable is to keep the program invisible to the employees they are supposed to be helping and disconnected from the workplaces they are supposed to be supporting. It reminds me of the old joke about the implicit understanding which was the basis of the Soviet Union’s economy: “you pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

I want to emphasize that most organizations I have worked with over the years truly understand the value of supporting their employees and they also have enough common business sense to know that nothing is really free and that all choices have costs and risks. Managers and HR professionals who have worked closely with a quality EAP program are not persuaded by the claims of “pretend” EAP that they can do everything a real EAP does for nothing.

Most companies don’t want a “pretend” EAP any more than they want a “pretend” consultant looking at their manufacturing process or a “pretend” accountant preparing their financial statements. They prefer partnerships with experienced, credible and committed professionals. But during tough times some companies feel desperate to cut costs and, in the pressure of such a moment, they may forget how much their success depends on the health and well-being of their employees. So here are some questions you should ask if one day the pressure starts building to go down the “pretend” path

Before you expose your organization, and your employees, to the risks, liabilities and disappointments of a “pretend” EAP, make sure you ask the following questions of any carrier that proposes a “free” EAP:

1. When one of our managers or HR professionals is dealing with a complicated and delicate employee situation at work and wants to discuss the matter with an experienced EAP consultant, who specifically would they be directed to?

2. Will our company be assigned to an account manager who will make sure that the EAP is properly introduced to our organization so that employees and family members know about the service?

3. If one of our employees wants to talk confidentially with an EAP counselor about a harassment issue, would the counselor they were assigned to be experienced in the management of workplace issues?

4. Will our company receive feedback (within appropriate confidentiality guidelines) about issues, trends and program utilization?

5. If one of our senior executives is experiencing personal problems would the EAP be able to match him or her with an appropriate EAP resource?

6. How will the EAP handle a management referral of a valued employee whose work performance is deteriorating due to an acute personal problem?

EAPs provide a lifeline for individuals and families as they cope with the stresses, challenges and upheavals of modern life. Organizations expect employees to deliver a quality effort in their jobs. In exchange, employers should ask the questions necessary to determine if vendors will deliver a quality program to the employees and families who will be depending on them.

It is not possible to get a program of value in exchange for nothing and there are risks associated with pretending otherwise.

If you have had any experience with, or thoughts about, “pretend” EAP please leave a comment.