Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are employee services that assist in managing a range of issues. This paper posits that in order to ascertain the effectiveness of EAPs, it is critical to identify their purpose and how EAPs are embedded and utilised in organisations to inform evaluations of the programs. A qualitative study investigating how and why EAPs are used in organisations was undertaken. Participants were organisational leaders (3 males, 13 females) representing major industries in Australia. Semi‐structured interviews were used to collect data and thematic analysis delineated two categories and eight themes. These highlighted that participants primarily used external program providers and considered EAPs to be a vital resource of support for staff, a cost‐effective mechanism for managing risk and developing staff, and industry expectation. Participants differed on their perspectives of how to position EAPs in organisations and what should be offered as core services of EAPs.
Participants primarily used external program providers due to the confidentiality afforded by this model.
Employee assistance programs are a vital staff support, cost effective in managing risk and an industry expectation.
Participants differed on how to position EAPs in organisations and what the core EAP services are.
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) seem to be a workplace panacea, attending to both personal and professional issues to enhance outcomes for employees and organisations (Deitz, Cook and Hersch 2005; Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA) 2009). As a ‘worksite‐based program designed to assist (a) work organisations in addressing productivity issues, and (b) “employee clients” in identifying and resolving personal concerns … that may affect job performance’ (Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) 2010), EAPs are thought to reduce corporate costs by influencing the variables (absenteeism, productivity, performance and turnover, etc.) responsible for these costs (Azzone et al. 2009; Hargrave et al. 2008; Jacobson and Attridge 2010). Globally, as organisations secure EAPs through tenders, there is great pressure for EAPs to offer whatever their client organisations require or request (Athanasiades, Winthrop and Gough 2008; Biggio and Cortese 2013; Hargrave et al. 2008). Organisations evaluate proposals from EAP providers based on varying internally derived criteria rather than external benchmarks of best practice. Criteria are generally determined by organisational strategy, needs, goals and resources, with EAP costings a major factor (Buon and Taylor 2007; EASNA 2009; National Business Group on Health 2009).
There are inherent problems with this context. The rapid growth in EAPs has been reactive, without a firm basis in an evidence base (Muto, Haruyama and Higashi 2012; National Business Group on Health 2009). The research itself illuminates mixed results. For example, Rick et al. (2012) did not find any studies in their review demonstrating EAPs as being more effective than having no intervention. In contrast, McLeod (2010) found that EAPs were generally effective in reducing anxiety, stress, depression and absenteeism and had a moderate impact on job commitment, work functioning, job satisfaction and substance misuse. These conflicting findings make it difficult to identify if, how and when EAPs are effective.
Current research also reflects a lack of rigorous research methodology. Most studies are longitudinal and do not include a control group to enable valid and reliable inter‐ and intra‐group comparisons (Rick et al. 2012). Many studies are also case studies which used the least rigorous methodology as compared to other investigations, with many focusing solely on short‐term counselling (Csiernik 2011; McLeod 2010; Rick et al. 2012). This increases the difficulty in identifying intra service differences and whether these differences affect the overall effectiveness of EAPs (Csiernik 2004; Daniels, Teems and Carroll 2005).
Little research has been based in Australia (Rick et al. 2012). Csiernik (2004) initially found only two Australian evaluation studies out of 39. A follow‐up review identified one Australian study out of 42 publications (Csiernik 2011). This dearth of Australian research makes it difficult to conduct any cross‐cultural comparisons particularly with the US, which appears to have the largest amount of evidence in this area (Csiernik 2011; Rick et al. 2012). At present, there is insufficient data to establish clear and robust trends within the Australian context.
The current study strives to refocus the evaluation of EAPs by identifying the purpose and objectives of EAPs, and the ways EAPs are used in modern organisations. This information is critical in framing the focus, design and analyses of EAP evaluations. As part of this approach, the framework afforded by psychological contracts can be used. Psychological contracts are unwritten agreements between employees and organisations, based on reciprocity and from the employees’ perspective (Rousseau 1989). When employees perceive they are supported by their organisation, this may be seen as prioritising staff well‐being and fulfilling the psychological contract between the two parties. Employees may then feel obliged to reciprocate with positive effects particularly relating to organisational commitment and engagement (Panaccio and Vandenberghe 2009; Sturges et al. 2003). By offering EAP as a support service to staff, organisations may be seen as meeting the terms of employees’ psychological contracts by positively contributing to staff well‐being.
In order to build a comprehensive evidence base, it is helpful to begin by identifying the purpose of EAPs and the ways in which EAPs are used in modern organisations, thus enabling an understanding of why and how EAPs are used to influence modern workplaces. Subsequent studies can then evaluate the effectiveness of the EAPs being delivered in organisations based on the areas highlighted from this first investigation. Thus, the aim of the current project was twofold: first, to identify the rationale behind using EAPs; and second, to clarify the mechanisms by which EAPs were used in organisations. The latter included information relating to the modes of service delivery (e.g. telephonic, face to face, online), types of services used (e.g. one‐on‐one counselling, critical incident support, management coaching, etc.) and sources of service delivery (e.g. by internal specialists or employees, by external third‐party organisations or a combination of the two). The research questions for this project were as follows:
Research question 1: Why were EAPs adopted by organisations? Were there specific variables or areas within the organisation that were being targeted for improvement through using EAPs?
Research question 2: How were EAPs used by organisations? To what extent were EAPs embedded in organisational processes and structures? What sorts of services were used and who delivered them?
Given the exploratory nature of the research questions, a qualitative approach was chosen to enable the collection of rich, detailed data. Hitherto quantitative approaches have been far more common than qualitative or even mixed methodologies (Rick et al. 2012). However, qualitative data can add richness and complexity to the analysis of results (Athanasiades, Winthrop and Gough 2008; Csiernik 2011; Deitz, Cook and Hersch 2005).
Participants were recruited through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as through the professional networks of the researchers and the university. Information about the study was provided along with the contact details of the researchers for potential participants to register an expression of interest in participating in the study. Potential participants were identified based on their status as managers at middle to senior levels and their involvement in the development of an organisational strategy involving EAP and/or the implementation of an EAP. Participants were 16 employees (3 males, 13 females) in a leadership role. Five participants were from the government sector, five were from the non‐for‐profit sector and six were from private industry. Organisations ranged in size from 500 to 3000 employees. Participants were from Victoria (8), New South Wales (4), Queensland (2) and South Australia (2); private and not‐for‐profit representatives were from national organisations and government representatives came from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia state governments.
Of the 16 participants, three were directors, six were human resources (HR) managers, three were team/area managers, three were HR advisors and one was a business partner. Participants had been in their current roles from 6 months up to 20 years. One participant did not have an EAP and instead had an arrangement with an external counselling service. Five participants did not know how long their organisation had an EAP for but were able to confirm that it had been in their organisation since they began their current roles and that it was firmly embedded. Two participants had an EAP in their organisation for about 10 years, one had an EAP for about 10–12 years, one for 12 years, one for 16 or 17 years, and one for 19 years. The remaining three participants were uncertain and could not make any comment as to how long an EAP had been used in their organisation.
Ethics approval for this study was received on 4 March 2014 from the Human Ethics Advisory Group, Faculty of Health at Deakin University. Participants were given a Plain Language Statement with a consent form that was completed before the interview. Participants agreed to a one‐on‐one interview with the researcher and did not interact with one another within the context of this study. Interviews were conducted by telephone or in a meeting room at the participants’ workplace between March and August 2014. The interviews were audio‐recorded with the participants’ permission and transcribed verbatim after each interview. The interview format was semi‐structured interview and lasted between 30 and 45 minutes each. Some of the interview questions included ‘why does your organisation offer staff an EAP?’, ‘what do you expect an EAP to include?’, ‘what benefits do you expect to gain from having an EAP?’, and ‘are there specific areas of the organisation you are looking to improve by having an EAP?’.
Data was uploaded using QSR NVivo 10.0 (2012), a software program used for qualitative data analysis, and categorised according to the interview questions. Thematic analysis was then conducted with the data in each question category and coded according to emerging themes. A generic approach to coding was adopted and involved attribute coding, descriptive coding and coding for patterns. The data in each code was then reread and analysed into sub‐codes where appropriate, with refinements and alterations made to the coding hierarchy and labelling. A second researcher independently coded a random 20% of the data to establish interrater reliability at >80%. Any disagreement was discussed within the research team until a group decision was made. Direct quotes from the data have been used to augment emergent themes (see Table 1).
Table 1. Coding categories with text examples
Category Theme Text example
Why EAPs are used Resource of support for staff ‘To assist with the balance between work and life experiences and to assist them with strategies or resources to guide/develop the relevant skill set.’ (Government)
Third party support services ‘Depending on their relationship with their manager, sometimes you can’t tell what the issue is and how to support them. That’s where EAP comes in and can assist because it’s a confidential, external service.’ (Not‐for‐profit)
Risk mitigation ‘we are trying to stem our turnover … and we are really trying to partner with our EAP to stem some of that.’ (Private)
Cost effective ‘I don’t think it’s that huge of an expense from an organisation point of view.’ (Not‐for‐profit)
Industry expectation ‘I think once EAP was available it pretty much guaranteed that every government agency up here signed on for it to say this is what we’ve got.’ (Government)
How EAPs are used Different types of service providers ‘X has had a program for the last 12 years. It has been facilitated by two providers until recently where the initiative went out to tender and one company has been awarded the contract to provide EAP services for the next 3–5 years.’ (Government)
Different types of services ‘We’ve used it definitely as a one on one counselling but also as more open group sessions around resilience.’ (Private)
Differences in partnering with EAPs ‘it sits within the delegation of my team, that we manage it as part of a health and well being program. How much it actually intereacts, I would say very minimal because of its confidential nature.’ (Government)
Two main categories with relevant themes were identified in the data (see Table 1 for examples). Three of the themes related to the first research question which concerned how EAPs were used in organisations, while the remaining five themes referred to the reasoning behind the utilisation of EAPs in organisations. Table 1 shows the two main categories and eight emergent themes. In order to ensure balanced organisational representation, the industry sectors that participants represent are included in brackets at the end of direct quotations.
Why EAPs are used
To support staff
When asked about the rationale behind using EAPs, participants commented that one of the major reasons was to offer an option of support to staff in the event of personal or professional change: ‘it’s always offered as a support mechanism for people who are impacted’ (Private).
There also seemed to be a tendency to view employees holistically, as individuals impacted by personal and professional factors which could in turn affect either domain. Offering the EAP to staff was seen as a way of alleviating some of the crossover between domains and assisting employees in dealing with the issues at hand. There was some acknowledgement that by doing so, organisational outcomes such as productivity and performance were protected and maintained:
life isn’t siloed. There are times where aspects of work flow into personal life and vice versa… so if the EAP’s end result is a bit of balance for people around how to manage all those aspects of life, then that does impact people’s ability to focus and be productive at work as well. (Not‐for‐profit)
As a third‐party support service
Many participants commented on the benefits of using a third‐party EAP which allowed staff to receive the support they required without necessitating the careful juggling of multiple and potentially conflicting interests for those in internal leadership roles:
key people in the senior management team or health and safety area can be seen to be aligned with one party or another… that degree of separation and objectivity (afforded by the EAP) actually gave a sense of reassurance to staff but also to management for different reasons. For management, they knew their people were being supported and for staff…people could say what they needed to say and not feel that that was going to be repeated or sour their relationship with HR or ruin any kind of interorganisational promotional opportunity that might come up and that sort of thing. (Not‐for‐profit)
In addition, the fact that this support was available to staff free of charge was seen as having the potential to reduce barriers to utilisation particularly for those individuals who might not otherwise have sought assistance: ‘people who perhaps aren’t aware or who wouldn’t commonly seek out support…people who are in that space might use something like this because it’s free, confidential’ (Government).
To mitigate risk
Using EAP to diminish risk was stated as a priority of all participants. Participants considered EAPs to be important in reducing financial costs and undesirable organisational outcomes associated with risk management and escalation. Areas of cost participants considered included high psychological injury, workers’ compensation and unfair dismissal claims, turnover, discrimination, conflict and formal complaints: ‘we see it (EAP) as a proactive way of lowering costs and preventing claims’ (Government).
One participant was able to share first‐hand knowledge of the impact of EAP on financial costs and risk mitigation. This participant had been with their organisation for up to 20 years and was able to provide some insight on reduced financial costs after the introduction of EAP:
we had a situation involving stalking of a staff member. Now that situation was ultimately resolved by providing that staff member with support through EAP … Prior to the EAP, we had another case of stalking. The workers’ compensation claim was lodged and ultimately that went through the process and cost the organisation a lot of money. We were actually able to compare the two situations … and we could see the outcomes. And not only a reduction of cost to the organisation but the outcome was that that person’s employment was actually preserved. (Private)
Some participants, mainly from the government and not‐for‐profit sectors, also discussed the reasoning behind having an EAP as being ‘a tick the box thing’ (Government) or ‘a cheap insurance policy’ (Not‐for‐profit); in other words, an overt demonstration of having an accepted means to support staff in any event where the organisation could be considered as having a corporate social responsibility to staff.
As a cost‐effective people management measure
Participants in this study appeared to view EAPs as a financially sound investment to support, engage and develop staff when compared to the costs of turnover and stress claims:
The environment and culture of the workplace and having engaged and motivated staff are critical to business outcomes. This means high levels of productivity and will eventually affect your profit margins. So definitely I think it’s a worthwhile investment and is better than having the costs of turnover or stress claims and that sort of thing. (Government)
I’ve got 2000 employees and if I lose an employee that I can save, that will cost me $60 000 before I blink. So there’s a value proposition there [for using the EAP] and it’s in the organisation’s favour. (Government)
Participants saw EAP as part of a ‘retention strategy’ (Not‐for‐profit) that placed employees front and centre in achieving sustainable high performance for organisations:
And we can ignore them (employees) and just see them as our resources but we do that at our own peril…if you’re actually in a professional environment where you get return on investment by developing and training your human resource, there’s no good logic match between the short term rebuttal from a long term investment. (Government)
Some participants, mainly from the government and not‐for‐profit sectors, also used EAP as a less expensive and more convenient alternative to third‐party training providers: ‘Internally in terms of providing our own training of skills for managers, we don’t have the resources to do that…so the organisation is heavily reliant on our EAP provider doing that for us at the moment’ (Government).
To meet industry expectations
Some participants particularly from the government and private sectors, referred to EAP being an expectation of organisations, industry and employees:
EAP is simply a condition a modern organisation will have. It will have an enterprise bargaining arrangement. It will have a code of conduct. It will have a sexual harassment and bullying policy. It will have an EAP. It just forms part of that. (Government)
They’ve engaged in it because…most employees come to any organisation and expect it as a standard package of your benefits. (Private)
How EAPs are used
Different types of service providers
Fifteen out of the 16 participants utilised an external, third‐party EAP provider while one participant reported that they used an external counselling service for ad hoc service provision. This participant was from a not‐for‐profit organisation. Participants did not report the use of an internal EAP, that is an EAP whose services are delivered by in‐house specialist employees.
Different types of services
For the most part, EAPs were primarily seen by all sectors as providing short‐term, one‐on‐one counselling that organisations can offer their staff for both personal and professional issues. These typically included 3–6 sessions per employee. Some organisations extended this service to immediate family members of their staff: ‘definitely one‐on‐one counselling and we’ve extended that to immediate family’ (Not‐for‐profit).
The other most frequently used services included ‘manager assist’ which is a management coaching service, and ‘critical incident management’ support which can include post‐incident onsite and offsite debriefing, follow‐up face‐to‐face or telephone counselling, and trauma training. On manager assist: ‘Manager assist will say look here are some steps you can take in order to confront the employee and expose the truth or … here is a process that can resolve the situation’ (Government). On critical incident management support: ‘our provider…provide(s) onsite counselling usually within about 2 to 3 hours… And they can provide the initial trauma debriefing and also follow up through counselling’ (Private).
Most participants also reported that their EAP provider offered mediation, facilitation, debriefing, training, coaching, mentoring, redundancy and/or outplacement services to staff. However, there were differences in participant responses regarding whether or not EAPs should include a range of services beyond their core offering of counselling. For example, one participant was keen to have one provider offering all their organisation’s required services, outlining the vast logistics of setting up and implementing agreements with individual providers as their main motivation for their viewpoint. This perspective was generally reflected by the participants representing the not‐for‐profit sector: ‘There’s a lot of work to administer contracts, negotiate and do all of that, so if you could go one stop shopping somewhere, that would be attractive to us’ (Not‐for‐profit).
Other participants were more cautious about utilising a single provider to offer this range of services. These participants were from the government and private sectors. One participant cited variation in skill level of EAP consultants as well as the parameters around the role of EAP within organisation as reasons for their approach:
And sometimes what I’ve found with EAP, they are providing advice around an organisation or changing someone’s employment, that they are not capable of doing that. And that’s not their role. Some [consultants] are better than others obviously so from that perspective, it really depends on the individual I think. (Private)
Participants also reported that there was no formal mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of the EAPs servicing their organisations though three participants, one from each sector, mentioned including items in internal employee engagement or satisfaction surveys. Participants generally relied on anecdotal evidence as the basis of their perceptions.
Differences in partnering with EAPs
Irrespective of sector, many participants commented on their belief that partnership with EAPs was important and that it was favourable to embed EAPs in organisations. Organisations worked with EAP providers to develop a strategy to proactively address particular aspects within the workplace: ‘I think there’s a real interest in doing more strategically and utilising or harnessing the skills of an EAP provider to support HR (human resources) at a more strategic level rather than a straight operational level approach’ (Not‐for‐profit). As an example, participants discussed how the feedback EAPs provided about ‘hot spots’ within organisations, largely through de‐identified and generalised trend reports, was used to inform the mechanisms put in place to address and defuse potential issues. Often these mechanisms involved management and EAP providers actively working together to continue this feedback loop and pre‐empt issue escalation:
we were getting instances of staff going to EAP because they felt unsafe at the workplace … unfortunately we suffered some murders in our city … We brought in someone who could talk about personal safety, mainly aimed at females. What do you do if an attacker prevails upon you? … It’s simple stuff like that that came through the EAP stats. (Government)
Participants spoke of how this partnering with EAPs reflected positive changes in the culture of the workplace:
And when there is an EAP need, they [staff] are not seeing it as a stigma. They go I know why I’m going to EAP. You’re not putting me into a box. You’re actually trying to make me achieve my potential. And this is simply another tool in your box of tools to help me achieve my potential. (Government)
I think people share stories better as a result of EAP. Somebody might go to EAP, have a resolution, come back into the workplace and as part of their ongoing discussions with fellow members of the work group, they hear somebody else experiencing the same problem and rather than going hey you need to go to EAP, hey you know what why don’t you try this and hey that’s a good idea. (Government)
Other participants commented on how the EAP was part of the overall people management strategy but that it was a distinct part. This belief seemed to be based on the view that the EAP was largely a short‐term counselling service and as a result, needed to be separate in order to maintain confidentiality:
EAP providers can do outplacement but it’s important not to blur the lines between EAP and the other services within the organisation. I’ll go back to the confidentiality. For the program to be successful, I believe it’s important to ensure that the confidentiality side is rigorously maintained. (Private)
The main point of difference between the not‐for‐profit sector and the private and government sectors was the extent and depth of EAP service utilisation. Participants from the not‐for‐profit sector tended to comment more frequently than those from other sectors on the nominal use of available services. On discussing the reasons why EAP was not more fully utilised, participants raised limited resources as the main reason:
there’s not much time or energy to put into those sorts of initiatives [health and well‐being initiatives including EAPs]. It’s just not a priority at the moment. There are other things which are more urgent. (Not‐for‐profit)
Every time we raise initiatives about mental health, getting initiatives through quite often gets resistance from senior management… (Not‐for‐profit)
The aims of the current study were to identify the rationale behind using EAPs and to clarify how EAPs are used in organisations. The results from this qualitative study proved to be a rich source of data, enabling the illumination of some valuable information. In relation to the first research question, of why EAPs are used in organisations (category 1), five main reasons were highlighted in the results – to support staff, as a third‐party support service, to mitigate risk, as a cost‐effective people management measure and to meet industry expectations.
In line with the findings of Buon and Taylor (2007), participants across sectors unanimously agreed EAPs were an important source of support that can be offered by organisations to their staff for the management of both personal and professional concerns. This highlights the high value placed on the support offered by EAPs as well as the underlying belief that EAPs are effective interventions for employees. It is important to consider how such a notion influences the participants in this study in spite of the absence of any comprehensive assessment methodology instigated by internal organisational mechanisms or external industry regulatory standards. This finding also underlines the holistic consideration of employees as individuals with multiple influences that have implications for personal and professional domains. By acknowledging the potential for crossover between domains and the capacity for organisations to offer some support for their employees, this perspective allows management to proactively address the possible impacts of employee issues on performance and productivity (EAPA 2010). In this way, management is able to fulfill their part of the psychological contract between employer and employee, securing enhanced outcomes at individual and organisational levels (Panaccio and Vandenberghe 2009).
Diminishing risk by using EAPs was also an important belief of all participants. EAPs were considered to be an effective intervention in reducing financial costs and negative organisational outcomes. Interestingly, only one participant was able to provide specific evidence, albeit an anecdotal example, of the positive impact of EAP through the comparison of two employees (an EAP user and a non‐EAP user) who were stalked by members of the public. This comparison was, however, made informally, without robust research methodology and consideration of extraneous factors, and with only two employees over an unknown period of time. None of the participants indicated a formal process of evaluating EAPs and linking this explicitly with relevant employee and organisational outcomes.
The other reasons reported were the availability of a third‐party support service, EAP as a cost‐effective people management tool and responding to industry expectation. These were also based on personal assessments and anecdotal evidence which makes it difficult to confirm the validity and reliability of these assessments. The implications are far reaching as it appears that assumptions of what EAPs can do for organisations are driving the growth in this field rather than robust evaluative methodology and a strong evidence base. It is important to challenge the assumptions on which these conclusions are based as misconceptions and misunderstandings can lead to unrealistic expectations of EAP service delivery and the benefits that organisations can expect from having an EAP. Therefore, establishing mechanisms and processes for evaluating the effect of EAPs is a critical research endeavour (Athanasiades, Winthrop and Gough 2008).
With regards to the second research question, that is how EAPs are used in organisations (category 2), this study found some noteworthy trends. First, similar to the research findings of the National Business Group on Health (2009), the majority of participants bar one reported that their organisations employed an external EAP provider rather than offering these services internally or utilising an external service on an ad hoc basis. This not only points to scope for growth in EAP service provision but also highlights the need for clear expectations of EAPs and best practice guidelines. While the results of this study do offer some insight, more research is needed to focus specifically on the varying types of service provision, fleshing out the differences between types and outlining the contexts where different types are more appropriate.
Next, in relation to the different types of services, participants largely agreed that the core offerings they expected of EAPs included short‐term counselling, manager counselling/coaching and critical incident debriefing support. While it is widely accepted that counselling and critical incident debriefing support are key EAP services that have direct bearing on staff well‐being, there is some dispute in the literature as to whether management coaching is within the realm of EAP. Buon and Taylor (2007) found that participants asserted that management consultation, coaching and training should not be part of the offerings of EAP. However, according to Allday’s (2013) report on the Australian market, 7% of the products and services used related to this area. The inclusion of management coaching in the findings of this study may indicate a shift in the Australian context to using EAPs more strategically and proactively in order to develop their human capital and avert the escalation of issues. Future research can focus solely on this area and explore the characteristics of the utilisation of this service. International market comparisons would also be of value.
With regards to the differences in uptake of other EAP services such as mediation, facilitation, training, debriefing, coaching, mentoring, redundancy and/or outplacement services, some participants reported not being aware if their provider offered these services, raising questions about the type of relationship between EAP provider and organisation and the effectiveness of the communications between the two parties. It is possible that EAP providers have attempted to communicate the availability of a broader range of well‐being services to organisations but these have been dismissed or ignored as they do not fit in with existing assumptions about what EAPs should offer. It is equally possible that program providers have not maximised their relationships with the organisations represented in this study, which is in keeping with Allday’s (2013) findings of EAP service utilisation rates ranging between only 5% and 25%. Future research also needs to focus on the level of awareness of EAPs and of services available.
The final trend emerging from this study relates to the differences in partnering with EAPs. Participants appeared keen to work more strategically with EAPs across the business, with some participants commenting on using data from EAP reports for forward planning. Such direction bodes well not only in terms of the growth of the EAP industry in Australia but more importantly, with regards to employee well‐being and organisational outcomes. Closer monitoring of outcomes can mean a more proactive and prompt approach to intervention, enhancing the probability of improved outcomes. There were differences regarding the degree to which EAPs were used by organisations with some participants. Some participants preferred rolling the logistics of setting up an agreement with support service providers into a single transaction with one EAP provider, while others were reluctant to do so due to overlapping boundaries and the potential breaching of confidentiality. EAP providers may therefore need to consider how to structure and market their services in a way that responds to these concerns and offers reassurance of the ‘integrity’ of the services being delivered. Effectively doing so can then lead to increases in the utilisation of services other than short‐term counselling, leading to a more effective and sustainable well‐being strategy. At an industry level, this also adds to the urgency that a framework for best practice is needed and should include standards of service delivery.
Inter‐sector comparisons revealed some interesting trends. Participants from all sectors considered EAP to be an important employee support service, a financially sound investment and a vital partner in people management. However, there were some differences. Participants from government and private sectors considered EAP to be an industry expectation and were cautious about using a single provider for all support services; participants from the not‐for‐profit sector was keener to use one provider for a range of services. Participants from the not‐for‐profit sector also reported using fewer services as compared to the government and private sectors due to limited resources. The small sample size of this study makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. A follow‐up study could include a larger sample that focuses more on teasing out trends from sectoral comparisons.
This preliminary study has contributed to the existing evidence base by collating rich, descriptive data on EAPs through its qualitative approach. The trends emerging from the present investigation serve as stepping stones for future research endeavours; nevertheless, the absence of a quantitative aspect has meant that much of the data is anecdotal and based on the assumptions, bias and values of the participants. Although this study is a valuable starting point for the consideration of maintaining psychological contracts in the workplace, future studies should consider a mixed methods approach including qualitative and quantitative methodologies, so as to ascertain if the trends emerging from this study are reliable and valid and extend to a larger population. In addition, it is possible that the individuals who volunteered to be participants in this study were already proponents of EAPs in organisations to varying degrees, leading to a skewed and potentially favourable representation of the use of EAPs in organisations. Repeating this study with a different sample of leaders who are not directly involved with co‐ordinating the EAP may assist in clarifying if the results of this research are replicable. It would also be useful for future investigations to replicate this study with small to medium organisations so that a comparison between organisational size and the trends emerging from this study can be made. Future investigations can target different populations such as employees and even EAP consultants, and then compare the intra‐study findings.
There is scope for additional investigation into the mechanisms of EAP providers themselves and in particular the quality control of the services on offer. Exploring the processes EAP providers use to evaluate their own service delivery, teasing out the differences between EAP providers as well as the impact of the types and requirements of organisations being serviced, can be helpful in improving current practice. In addition, considering the barriers relating to utilisation, and the factors enhancing utilisation rates, are important. If EAP is not perceived as a viable and available support for staff, it is not possible to assess how effective it is in improving individual and organisational outcomes. Moreover, examining the variations in utilisation of different services and the constraints in service delivery can reveal nuances of EAP usage, risk management and shortfalls in EAP offerings, thereby enhancing the potential to effectively meet the terms of workplace psychological contracts.
In conclusion, while the field of EAPs is growing, the lack of a comprehensive body of research to support how and why EAPs could be used and best practice guidelines for service delivery is a major obstacle. More specifically, within the Australian context, many assumptions and claims relating to EAPs dominate what little research actually exists. By understanding more deeply the role EAPs play in enhancing employee well‐being, the maintenance of psychological contracts in the work context can be similarly improved. It is hoped that the trends emerging from this study act as a starting point for future investigations that can carry on mapping out the landscape of EAPs.