The pressures brought to bear by the COVID-19 pandemic have meant a wholesale increase in stress, anxiety and mental illness for people across the globe. As more and more employees transition toward a blend of working from home and being at their workplace, their efforts to remain connected, engaged and productive have become more complicated and demanding. How will the EAP industry have to change to remain helpful and relevant – and what future transformation is necessary for it to keep pace with the aftermath of the pandemic and this rapidly changing world of work?
“How will the EAP industry have to change to remain helpful and relevant – and what future transformation is necessary for it to keep pace with the aftermath of the pandemic and this rapidly changing world of work?”
“The pandemic has increased the trend of employers playing a more involved role in their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.”
Many employers now play an expanded role in the new world of work
In a substantially changed world of work, mental health is no longer the private space it once may have been for employers and employees. The pandemic has increased the trend of employers playing a more involved role in their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. The current coronavirus pandemic has also pushed the bounds of how employers view the employee experience. For example, personal factors rather than external factors may take precedence over what matters for organisations and employees alike. At the other end of the spectrum, while some organisations have recognised the humanitarian crisis of the pandemic and prioritised the wellbeing of employees as people over employees as workers, others have pushed employees to work in conditions that are high risk with little support — treating them as workers first and people second.
COVID-19 has put EAP front and centre, in the organisational spotlight
Though employers may have been ramping up their EAP initiatives for some time, it is the COVID-19 pandemic that has propelled this workplace benefit into the spotlight and there are ramifications of COVID-19 that will affect EAPs well into the future.
One aspect lies in new modes of EAP delivery
Certainly in first world countries, starting almost a decade ago, discussion began to surface in regard to the future move to global, online, 24-7 support and consulting services, driven by emerging technologies such as instant messaging, video conferencing, online educational programmes and tools etc. Yet, until recently, the bulk of South African employees are not likely to have experienced telehealth. Then COVID-19 happened. The pandemic created a situation in which the only way healthcare providers and EAP counsellors could reach their patients and clients was through means other than face-to-face. Due to necessity from the COVID-19 pandemic, many healthcare providers across the world have had to delve, for the first time, into phone and video visits.
An interesting white paper entitled Employee Assistance Program response and evolution in light of COVID-19 pandemic , published online in the Journal of Workplace Health in October 2020 states: “Now that many healthcare and EAP providers have tried these new
technologies, it will be interesting to see how this affects the future of delivery of EAP services. The barriers of disruption and learning the new technology have now been removed. Many clients have now experienced the convenience of video visits, which may make sense in certain scenarios (e.g. distance and/or time limitations) instead of in-person visits every time.”
“As business is ramping up across the country (and world), there is concern that people will be doing more with less to make up for economic losses. Burnout was a major concern prior to the pandemic and could become even more pronounced with increased demands and decreased control driven by financial need. Many businesses will have been closed and workers will have been displaced, creating an acute stressful toll. The resulting usual EAP and work issues will likely be magnified, with counsellors seeing the usual relationship and work issues magnified during times of stress. Eventually new opportunities will present themselves, and EAPs will need to be ready to respond. Many businesses reluctant to convert to teleworking may see the benefits in productivity, flexibility and employee retention. More teleworkers and less on-site work can create new issues, however, as supervisors and employees do not have as much (or possibly any) face-to-face time. EAPs will certainly have a role at continuing to counsel employees in navigating workplace dynamic issues, even if the EAP counsellors are doing so virtually.”
Another aspect lies in expanded EA programme content
For example, expanded EAP benefits can be designed to assist employees in coping with stress and anxiety relating to COVID-19, including issues involving:
- Social isolation and mental health or emotional difficulties resulting from shelter-in-place and quarantine orders
- Transitioning to a telework environment
- Increased child care obligations, including educating children at home
- Preparing to return to office facilities following reopening
Bold action is required in embracing EAP 2.0
EAP practitioners should be bold in facing transformation: re-evaluating and updating their offering in order to improve the member experience, enhance support hours for trainings and critical incidents, supplement telephonic and face-to-face visits by providing access to virtual therapy/psychiatry, leverage digital, cognitive- based therapy resources, and play a part in “rebranding” the EAP to highlight the full spectrum of its updated services, including high-value work-life resources.
“EAP practitioners should be bold in facing transformation…”