Why Mental Health in the Workplace is More Than Just an EAP

image shows a drawing of a person pulling noodles out of their head. it is graphic and illustrative, not realistic

It’s a relatively simple business principle: if your workforce is healthy, your organisation performs better. But are you doing enough to keep your people well?

Over the last 50 years, heavy industry has honed a relentless focus on physical safety. Consequently, we have seen many other industries follow suit with safety management systems, risk reporting, training and WHS policies and procedures now commonplace in organisations. However, as controlled and detailed as these practices are, they fail to address the number one predictor of an injury at work: having your mind on the job.

To this end, mental health has become a primary focus across industries to ensure not just the physical safety of employees, but to help them – and the business – perform better.

During prolonged periods of isolation through COVID, we saw the mental health of employees become an unprecedented priority for most, if not all, companies. With physical safety largely taken care of, businesses faced a new challenge: to maintain and uplift the motivation and wellbeing of their people.

In our work through the pandemic, we saw this done well countless times; leaders connecting with their people in new, unscheduled ways, employee care packages, regular check-ins and focused wellbeing programs. But as COVID dragged on, we also saw the energy behind these efforts begin to dissipate. Numerous employees across industries told us stories of their personal struggles, which, when raised, prompted nothing more than a referral to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

An EAP is a service that is set up as an independent confidential counselling service for employees, and is occasionally extended to their immediate family members. This is generally implemented at no cost for the employee. Rather, it’s an opportunity for them to have someone to talk to confidentially, encouraging wellbeing in the workplace.

When we asked our resident Organisational Psychologist, Nick Brandon-Jones about this, his take was that deferring to a third party to navigate employee wellbeing wasn’t just avoidant, it’s also unsustainable.

“In the modern world, where the pace of work is so fast, leaders are busy. With so much on, they can feel like they might not be the best person to navigate someone’s mental health concern. Referring them to an EAP is done with good intentions. The problem is, it keeps employees at arm’s length and reduces psychological safety within relationships. Over time, this can really influence collaboration, communication and productivity.” he says.

Louisa Detez, a Senior Consultant at FBG Group, agrees.

“EAPs really are just a tertiary measure. They don’t address any of the systemic work-related factors that could be contributing towards how individuals experience the workplace. If we keep thinking solely about supporting those who are experiencing impacts at work, we’re not doing anything to support those that are actually doing okay or doing really well. We won’t be in the position to keep them thriving.”

The EAP has risen in popularity alongside work-from-home (WFH) policies.

At the core of some of the WFH challenges faced during the COVID pandemic, was the blending of work life and personal life. We encountered both explicit and implicit sentiments that working-from-home meant employees were available at any time. Unsurprisingly, this began to take a toll on work-life balance and affect employees’ mental health. 47% of respondents in a survey undertaken by the National Safety Council reported that their company’s usage of EAPs had increased significantly in both uptake and investment during the pandemic.

According to Nick, relying on an EAP to balance out this issue is overly optimistic. Rather, organisations need to improve their hybrid work practices, particularly through a focus on empathetic communication.

“The better people understand and respect personal boundaries, the less potential there is for someone’s mental health and wellbeing to be impacted while working from home.” he says.

There’s great opportunity in this, Louisa adds.

“Hybrid work brings so many opportunities that did not exist pre-pandemic in that now, so many more roles are accessible to those that might need that flexibility. That flexibility is such a protective factor when it comes to psychological health in the workplace. You might not have to commute home, so you might be able to head to the gym straight after work, get all those good endorphins and work out some of your stress.”

If you’re relying on your EAP a little too frequently, how might you change up your approach to mental health at work?

At Interchange, consultation is queen. Your first port of call is to ask your people what’s working for them right now when it comes to looking after their mental health. However, as Louisa cautions, don’t expect it all to be quick fixes. Sometimes, the larger, more valuable nuggets are a little trickier to get to.

“There are general things like training and mental health awareness training, but then also those more systemic changes that might involve role redesign, work design, as well as setting up broader systems of support. This might be creating peer support programmes to help people understand how they can support one another.

But when we’re focusing on just individuals supporting one another, we’re removing the onus that exists on the organisation more broadly to make those systemic changes. When those systemic changes are implemented, that’s where we see a lot more of that sustainable embedding.”

We have a shared responsibility for mental health and wellbeing as individuals.

As much as our employers might enjoy a world where work is entirely disconnected from an employee’s homelife, the fact is that our mental health remains a huge driver of our effectiveness at work.

While an EAP is a piece of the puzzle, alternative and additional support is another. Whether that’s via a peer support programme, mentor or even someone removed from the organisation, it’s important that people have other people to talk to. Leaders who adopt this role with their people can build great trust, but also recognise when professional support is needed.

Beyond that, however, is the bigger picture. As Louisa says:

“Look at those upstream solutions as well; how can we put in place that intervention and have that constant monitoring of what could be helpful in stopping people needing that support? [We need to have] a really good control over some of those primary and secondary interventions like job redesign, like realistic induction and recruitment processes, ongoing access to training, particularly for leaders’ ongoing capability development, and those appropriate stretch opportunities as needed.”

It’s generally our responsibility to do what we can within our power to look after ourselves, but it’s also the responsibility of the workplace to create these safe work environments. While an EAP is useful, it can’t be the catch-all approach to wellbeing. We need to get on the front foot and stay ahead of the needs of our employees.

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