The beginnings of EAPs can be traced to the 19th century temperance movement in the US. During the century, alcohol consumption went from being an open, ordinary work activity to a frowned upon act that was linked to industrial.

Of course, people still drank. But instead of being stigmatised, the diminished health and productivity of these people was something many companies felt they had a moral duty to fix. In The Evolution of Employee Assistance: A Brief History and Trend Analysis, a 2003 paper published by EAP Digest, William White and David Sharar write that one of the earliest inebriate homes was started by a business owner who rehabilitated an employee by having them stay at his own house.

Such efforts were part of the ‘rescue work’ that emerged within the American temperance movement and were aggressively pursued within companies whose leaders viewed themselves as the head of the company ‘family.’ The growth of medical and personnel departments [the precursor to HR] within American business and industry grew, in part, out of such paternalism.

In this early form, employee wellbeing was the purpose and goal. It was perceived as a moral, even familial, responsibility, rather than a business benefit. The authors go on to write that in the 20th century companies become more “depersonalised” and therefore more likely to just fire alcoholic employees. 

In reaction, informal assistance from colleagues who had been through the Alcoholics Anonymous programs became common. These were then formalised into “occupational alcoholism programs” by progressive companies that wanted more staff to benefit. The programs gradually expanded their remit into other employee behavioural problems and began to be referred to as Employee Assistance Programs.

The turn to outsourcing these programs happened gradually but has very much become the norm. Participants in a study published in the Australian HR Institute’s Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (APJHR) cited confidentiality as a primary reason to use an external program. 

But there is a flipside to this. Being outside the organisation can mean being assigned the dirty work. By the end of the eighties, drug testing and zero tolerance policies saw some EAPs take on a role that was the reverse of their original intent.

Employee assistance professionals who had long played a role in the ‘rescue and recovery’ of substance-impaired individuals within the workplace now found themselves participating in the exclusion and extrusion of these individuals from the workplace.

External EAPs are also used for their cost-effectiveness, the APJHR study found. Organisations became their ‘customers’. This shift also led to the diversification of EAP services. They began offering training, mediation, consultation and a variety of other services that were aimed at prevention and proving their worth to leadership, rather than just addressing the wellbeing crises of individual employees.

In a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health, researchers drew on qualitative interviews with employee assistance practitioners to find out what caused EAPs to be successful, at-risk or eliminated. They arrived at several themes that seemed determinative. Except for one, they all touched on the tension business viability creates between organisational and individual outcomes. 

Tying wellbeing to an external service makes it easier to switch it off – the organisation can stop being a customer. 

Under the theme ‘organisational culture’, the research paper quotes a practitioner as saying: “We can be empathic, we can be understanding, but we also need to be able to present in a way that people get [that] we understand this is a business. We have shareholders.”

In other words, while caring for an individual is good, it is not sufficient. You need to be able to tie it to a bottom line benefit. The links between wellbeing and organisational outcomes has to be argued freshly each time.

Under the theme ‘organisational structure and change’ a different practitioner spoke of the difficulty of using certain analytics to get buy-in. Here’s the fundamental question: even if you get a nine per cent utilisation, isn’t it fair to ask what you are doing for the other 91 per cent?

This suggests that, for some companies, only helping some employees is not sufficient to justify the cost. This is a world away from the business owner who rehabilitated an employee in his house.

The most pertinent quote from the study came from a practitioner who was referring to the best way to get organisational support: “In order to make the program successful and sustainable, unfortunately, you need a tragic or a big event.” It could be argued that every organisation in the world has just experienced such a thing. So how have EAPs been affected?

There is data that shows wellbeing has become a common company investment.

A Gartner survey of HR leaders around the world found that two-thirds of organisations had introduced at least one new wellness benefit by late March 2020.

It is believed that employers collaborating with their EAPs and committing more seriously to the wellbeing of all their employees is a trend that has been accelerated by COVID-19. Employers have realised they need to engage people and be on the lookout for them

As things go on the need for a more holistic program that looks at employee wellbeing in a broader sense, not just for people with problems, but to help improve and support the wellbeing of all employees. That includes things such as helping employees manage their own wellbeing with online tools and programs, as well as professional support.

One hopeful sign that the change might be permanent has been the proactive steps organisations have taken as they move through different stages of the pandemic.

A lot of organisations are in that phase of transition back to the workplace, and they’re reaching out and asking: ‘How can we work together?’ They want to collaborate before things happen, rather than saying, ‘this crisis has occurred and how can we now you look after all of our people?’

In the APJHR study, respondents felt there were tremendous benefits to making sure an EAP partner was fully integrated with the company. A telling example: an organisation that did this found that employees who had received counselling from their EAP tended to pass on the advice. Wellbeing had become a norm.

The biggest beneficiary of embedding an EAP may be HR professionals, as the pandemic has shown. All of a sudden their role was 24/7 focused around dealing with pretty difficult emotional and psychological issues from lots of employees.