Buyer’s guide to employee assistance programmes


The facts:

What are employee assistance programmes (EAPs)?

An EAP provides confidential information, support and counselling to employees with personal or work-related issues. The service is available around the clock by telephone or online, with a comprehensive EAP also providing access to face-to-face counselling where necessary.

An EAP can also support an employer. As well as providing advice to line managers, it can also produce anonymous management information to help an employer identify and tackle workplace issues.

What are the origins of EAPs?

EAPs first appeared in the US in the 1950s to help employees tackle alcohol-related problems. They made their way to the UK, in their more comprehensive format, in the 1980s.

Where can employers get more information and advice?

The UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA),, is a not-for-profit organisation representing individuals and organisations concerned with employee assistance, psychological health and wellbeing.

What are the costs involved?

Cost depends on the type of programme and the number of employees covered. For example, according to the EAPA, a full EAP for 500 employees in the private sector would cost around £8 per head per year, while an organisation with 2,000 employees opting for a telephone counselling service would pay around £3.50 per head per year.

What are the legal implications?

An EAP can help an employer safeguard employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Although a Court of Appeal ruling in 2002 (Sutherland v Hatton) stated that an EAP could protect an employer from employees’ stress claims, this was clarified in 2007 when judges stated that employers needed to do more than simply offer an EAP.

What are the tax issues?

An EAP can be regarded as a business expense rather than a benefit in kind providing it satisfies HM Revenue and Customs’ definition of welfare counselling and it is not provided directly to dependants, unless in relation to an issue being faced by an employee.

What is the annual spend?

The most recent EAPA figures are from 2012, when almost £70 million was spent on EAPs in the UK.

Which providers have the biggest market share?

No figures are published but providers include Axa Icas, Bupa, Busy Bees Benefits, Care First, CIC, ComPsych, Health Assured, Lifeworks, Optum, OH Assist, P&MM, Right Management Workplace Wellness, Validium, Westfield Health and Workplace Options.

Which have increased their market share the most?

It is difficult to say without any published data but Health Assured’s acquisition of Capita’s EAP in 2015 will have represented significant growth.

With life’s stresses and strains affecting employee health, wellbeing and productivity, more and more employers are providing their workforces with access to an employee assistance programme (EAP).

These services can provide support across a wide range of areas, including psychological issues, work and relationship problems, bereavement, child and eldercare, and debt and financial concerns. For example, The evolution of employee assistance: investigating the use, impact and reach of EAPs in today’s organisations research published in November 2016 by the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and Lancaster University’s The Work Foundation, found the most common uses are for depression (57%), and coping with family events (56%). Workplace issues are less common, but still significant, with difficulties with line managers (20%), workplace restructure (15%), and bullying (6%) reported by respondents.

To access this support, employees contact the EAP by calling a confidential telephone helpline. This is available around the clock so it can be used at home, as well as at work, whenever an issue arises. Many services also offer online access to support but ringing a helpline remains the preferred way to contact an EAP. According to the EAPA research, 84% of contact is by phone, with the remaining 16% online.

Cover levels

The level of cover available varies between the services. At the lower end of the scale, an EAP will only offer access to telephone and online support, providing information and some counselling but also signposting to other sources of advice and help.

More comprehensive services will offer access to professionally trained counsellors, as well as other support, such as legal and debt experts. In addition, where necessary, these services will be able to refer an employee for face-to-face counselling.

Typically, a programme will include a series of six to eight counselling sessions, although some providers are adopting a ‘clinically appropriate’ approach, offering sessions for as long as the counsellor deems them necessary.

Some also offer resilience training so that employers can create a workplace that supports mental wellbeing.

EAPs can be purchased on a standalone basis or can be included for free alongside another employee benefit, such as group income protection, private medical insurance or health cash plans.

If opting for an EAP that is included within another employee benefit, it is sensible for an employer to check the level of cover provided. Some are fairly basic and only provided to members of staff who have the employee benefit, while others are full EAPs that are automatically extended to all of the workforce.

Business support

As well as providing information and counselling to employees, another important role for EAPs is to support managers. By calling the EAP, a manager can access advice on how to manage workplace issues or find out how to deal with an employee who may be experiencing health problems. Some EAPs have also built on this support, adding in specialist services such as trauma management and mediation.

Employers can also benefit. On top of helping their employees remain healthier and happier, EAPs can provide them with management information to inform their broader healthcare strategies.

This management information is anonymous but can show increases in particular issues. For example, a rise in calls about debt could signal a need for more financial education, or, if it highlights an increase in calls about work-related stress from one area of the business, the employer may want to investigate the cause of this to prevent the problem worsening.

New features

EAPs are evolving too, with some adding in additional features and benefits for employees. For example, apps are becoming more common, allowing employees to have access to tools, information and support via their smartphone.

Among those providers that have launched apps are Health Assured and LifeWorks. The former’s app, Health e-Hub, offers videos and webinars to support employees, mini health and wellbeing checks and a range of assistance including online cognitive behaviour therapy.

As well as the more traditional helpline, the Lifeworks app includes a range of health information for employees. They select the areas that interest them and then receive a daily feed of bite-size information such as short videos, articles and links to discounted products such as health-related books.

Getting value

Finding new ways to engage employees with EAPs is a good way to push up usage, which is generally fairly low. Figures from the EAPA’s research show that the overall average level of use by employees is just 5%.

Promoting these services is key. Providers recommend regularly communicating the benefits of the EAP and the range of services that can be accessed through them. Often, employees believe they only provide support for psychological problems when many would benefit from advice on anything from childcare to debt and legal advice.

EAP providers can help with this promotion. Many offer a variety of marketing materials including wallet cards, worksite posters and newsletters to ensure that employees are aware of the service and can benefit from it.


  • 68% of employers offer access to an EAP or counselling services (Source: Employee Benefits/Xerox HR Services, Benefits research, June 2016)
  • 44% of employees know a colleague who has had to give up work due to stress (Source: Capita Employee Benefits, Employee insight report 2016-17, October 2016)
  • 71% of Canada Life’s group income protection customers who used the EAP it provides said they would have missed work if they had not been able to access it (Source: Exit surveys conducted by Health Assured in 2015)
  • 73% of organisations say that stress has been an issue in the last three years (Source: Jelf Employee Benefits, October 2016)
  • 68% of organisations say managers use the EAP for support on how to manage workplace issues (Source: EAPA and The Work Foundation, The evolution of employee assistance: investigating the use, impact and reach of EAPs in today’s organisations, November 2016)