Is now the time to develop an employee assistance program for your small company?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

Being the boss can be especially difficult when your employees are struggling with emotional difficulties, life setbacks, addiction, family or relationship woes, or other personal issues. As a small business owner, each of us is responsible for making sure our companies perform at optimal efficiency, which means that our employees must be able to function well. And, as human beings, many of us also want to help employees who are having problems coping for any reason.

Major corporations often offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), defined by Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)  as “work-based intervention programs designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance.” Over the years, some of these programs have broadened to cover issues as wide-ranging as psychological, substance, financial, and legal concerns. They may offer referrals, virtual or in-person counseling, and even consulting for adoption and more, often at no cost to employees. According to SHRM, “EAPs that offer medical benefits such as direct counseling and treatment rather than just referrals for counseling and treatment are regulated under ERISA and subject to COBRA.” In some cases, services may be offered to not only to employees, but also to their spouses, partners, and other family members.

The International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) notes that, with small businesses “gaining in prominence and importance in the American labor market,” EAPs need to evolve to meet the growing needs of more companies with smaller workforces but with no lack of personal issues among employees.

But even as the evolution of EAP programs proceeds to better serve smaller companies, you as a business owner can already provide some level of support to employees. Depending on your needs and resources, you may have several realistic options:

-Find out what your employee health plan offers as benefits for EAP-type services. See Anthem as an example.

-Join a consortium of employers to contract for EAP services, lowering your cost-per-employee and overall cost as compared with going it alone. (Check with your local Chamber of Commerce, industry association or the EAPA; or search the internet for a consortium or EAP association in your area.)

-Engage in a pay-as-you-go contract with an EAP provider. Or, create a fee-for-service contract for selected services, and pay a fee based on the number of employees you have (rather than by how many use the services). Start with this list of EAP providers.

-If your employees are unionized, check into member assistance programs (MAPs) available through the union.

-If all of the above cost more than you can afford, create a comprehensive list of referrals for various services, and provide this to all employees. This won’t cover the cost of services, but at least can steer staff members in the right direction. You may wish to include mental health, substance abuse, wellness, weight management, family counseling, mediation, and other services available in your area.

As you make your plans, learn more about EAPs and the questions you should ask, with this “toolkit” from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and this article from Fit Small Business. Discussion of potential costs for an EAP program  are described in Fit Small Business as well.

Once you have an EAP or referral service in place, make sure all your employees know about the program and its benefits. Make sure they understand that the services provided are confidential. Employees will be more comfortable accessing the services they need if they are confident that doing so will not negatively impact their employment status or reputation at work. Also, be careful not to call out individual employees as needing (or being required to use) services, unless you have obtained legal counsel. Generally, keep the program open and available for all, without saying, “George, you may want to consider the weight management counseling” or “Priscilla, we have excellent referrals for anxiety issues.”

Well-planned and implemented, an EAP program can be an attractive benefit for employees, and a boost to your bottom line.


Michelle van Schouwen  enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5  For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC, a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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