Learnings from the Frontline: EAP – An Industry Keeping Pace with Change | EAPA-SA

The current COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown in South Africa has already had an impact on the EAP industry.  Vice President, Radhi Vandayar, gives us her very current insights into the effects COVID-19 has already had on the EAP industry in South Africa – as well as her insights into what ongoing impact she sees the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lock will have on the industry going forward. 

Q.  How is COVID-19, as a highly contagious pandemic, affecting South African Employee Assistance Practitioners in their work?

It is a very challenging situation as this virus is so contagious and it all happens so fast. 

Supporting those on the frontline

Like other professionals dealing with people, we have needed to act with speed. So, while it came as a shock to us, we have dug deep and rallied our resources. We took leadership from our president as Government clearly has sight of the bigger picture. We have prepared for lockdown but in a different way. The public sector has been called to exercise leadership and be on the frontlines (with the necessary precautions of course), and EAP is considered an essential service as we are there to support those on the frontline who are  dealing with the public, trying to manage the pandemic.

“We have needed to act with speed”. 
Supporting employees under lockdown

In the private sector, both internal EAP practitioners and service providers have had to switch to digital modes of supporting companies under lockdown and essential service retailers. This has required  a generation of EAPs to learn to be digitally fluent in a very short space of time, due to the escalating stress, anxiety and fears of our population. Mental health has become a major factor in how to deal with this pandemic.

Easy access to technology has escalated the numbers

EAP professionals have always been known for their solution-focused therapy. However, easy access to technology places pressure on the EAP as it has allowed for people who wouldn’t usually access the service to seek support via telephone counselling, WhatApp messaging or “live chat” functions. In fact, I was just on shift doing live chat counselling for a provider in South Africa for a few hours today. This makes help easily available to people who need support when alone or worried. They might have the symptoms or just need to vent frustrations about being at home and bored or overwhelmed managing kids etc. 

“Mental health has become a major factor in how to deal with this pandemic” .
However, we still have to be mindful that sometime we still might need to do face to face interventions like trauma debriefing. Then we have to prepare our counsellors to take the necessary precautions like social distancing, sanitisers and masks, if necessary. Then, we offer the same kind of support but use different platforms to reach people. I do think it’s going to compel us to look at doing things differently going forward.

Q: How do you think that having to undergo the outworking of the COVID-19 pandemic will serve to change employee’s attitude to the importance of having Employee Assistance as a benefit?

Reducing the stigma

I think at many levels of society people have started taking mental health issues more seriously lately. Business journals have been speaking to the importance of addressing mental health issues, particularly as these have proven to impact on the bottom line. However, the biggest obstacle to date has been stigma. What this virus pandemic is achieving, is that it puts us all in the same boat with a shared experience of fear, stress and anxiety. Everyone is talking about it impacting them negatively. Support services are promoted openly and on different platforms, and are made easy to access.  The message is clear: “Reach out chat to someone – there is no stigma involved”. On a live chat you can remain totally anonymous until you need to access more information or services, and so we are currently supporting people who would not usually come to counselling. The barrier is slowly breaking down, along with the perception of stigma within some people.

“The barrier is slowly breaking down, along with the perception of stigma within some people”. 
“My first prize is that all employees will come to see counselling is as normal” 
Changing the way employees see EAPs

At telephone level you can also remain anonymous until you need face-to-face counselling for a serious issue. Again, I think that in the long run the current impact of the virus is showing that counselling is nothing to be afraid of – it is merely a form of support available in times of need. It provides a space where you can talk to an objective and non judgmental expert and bounce a few things off them and find solutions to what is affecting you. My first prize is that all employees will come to see counselling is as normal as going to see a GP to cure a common ailment; that in the same way people will see their EAP when they are stressed or need to find a solution to a particular problem in a relationship.

Q. What can EAP providers do to bounce forward in this new reality?

Scale up and becoming digitally savvy

Many of the larger providers have been anticipating this in their forward planning to address millennials entering the workforce. They anticipated the take-up of EAP will increase in usage gradually, over time. This virus and lockdown have disrupted that timeline. So, they have found themselves having to quickly scale up and move staff around to service the digital EAP services available. Counsellors have had to adjust to providing digital counselling.

Plus, they have had to look at the ethical and clinical protocols:

  • How do they educate the employees that call in or enter a live chat?
  • What information is required to call it a case? How do they keep their records and confidentiality?
  • Is their system encrypted?
  • What about cases recorded – where are they stored/are they safe etc?

So, there has been a steep learning curve. However, like all emergency situations it pushes everyone involved to make swift decisions and find solutions to ensure everything is safe and legal.

“Counsellors have had to adjust to providing digital counselling”.
Report and evaluate for future development

I do think the smaller EAP programs will be hard hit if they have done nothing to progress their modes of operation, BC (before coronavirus). Going forward there will be news ways of functioning and all these platforms will need to speak to a reporting system that can show value to their customers. This technology, and different platforms, will allow new people in the organisational structure to access the services more efficiently, and more frequently, as well. This will increase the number of repeat users as they see how easy it is to access. So, we as a profession might need to look at utilisation rates (number of cases/ people) against engagement rates (number of services per case) against the integration of services rate (how one person or case used various services /the repeat usage of various services over time).  

An example would be: An employee logged into their company wellness page and saw a health article on coronavirus. They then entered a live chat to ask questions and talk to a counsellor. The counsellor was concerned about risk level so they took it to telephone counselling. The issue was serious and the employee was sent to face-to-face counselling after lockdown. This whole interaction will need to be captured so the company can understand access habits and which services are most needed and when.

Never lose the human touch

Data is the future in terms of managing the process. However, EAP at its core is about people, so we will never lose that personal touch and human contact. Humans thrive in social settings. Even now with COVID-19 lockdown the emphasis is on keeping in touch. So as long as we don’t lose that core and we see technology as just a vehicle to keep connected there is still room for us as EAP professionals to support and be there for our populations. 

In conclusion…

In a nutshell, yes it will be different going forward in terms of HOW we go about doing what we do, but WHAT we do will not change at all.

“we will never lose that personal touch and human contact”. 

Please refer to the EAPA-SA Workplace Guideline COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-19 Virus for further reading.

Radhi Vandayar

Radhi Vandayar

EAPA-SA Board Member: President-Elect

Radhi is a passionate people engagement professional that owns a training and coaching consultancy. She is also currently an MBA mentor/academic tutor at Henley business school for their MBA students. Then recently she was elected to the post of President Elect of the EAPA-SA Board. However she has served on the board for the last 11 years in various portfolios like Research and development, Marketing and Egoli Chapter Chairperson. She is passionate about people development and therefore works within the Human capital space as a consultant in Employee wellness and has done so for the last 15 years. Her previous position at ICAS as Strategic Learning & Development Manager exposed her to a number of industries that developed her vast experience in people engagement and wellbeing interventions.