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Programs helping employees in crisis net big returns for Canadian employers: study

Programs helping employees in crisis net big returns for Canadian employers: study

It may be tempting for Canadian employers looking at the bottom line to question the value of employee and family assistance programs (EFAP) that are so often included in employee health-benefits packages.
For many companies, these programs – which offer confidential services to employees in crisis — have been in place for so long, their existence is almost taken for granted.

But a new study by the human-resourcing firm Morneau Shepell indicates there’s more to these programs than just keeping workers happy. Indeed, the study, the largest of its kind in Canada to date, found that companies with robust EFAPs in place stand to reap huge rewards with relatively minimal financial investment.

Specifically, researchers calculate the rate of return for every dollar spent on an EFAP at $8.70 in improved productivity and fewer employee sick days taken.

“The service helps people get back on track in terms of productivity and it prevents a lot of problems,” said Paula Allen, vice president of research and integrated solutions at Morneau Shepell.

The study comes as the public conversation around mental health in the workplace gains steam in Canada. Big-name athletes like Olympian Clara Hughes, celebrities and business leaders who’ve chosen to be open with their own struggles with depression, anxiety and stress have done much to raise awareness around the topic and make it possible for it to be discussed out in the open.

It is a very real problem: A 2013 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that about 500,000 Canadians miss work on any given week due to mental illness, with total costs to the economy in the range of $51 million annually.

A separate study by Morneau Shepell published earlier this year found workplace stress to a major contributor to the rising number of disability claims in the country. According to the study, stress levels have doubled since 2009, driven largely by financial insecurity, job insecurity, global competition and corporate turbulence.

The previous study also found that Canadians are overwhelmed and overloaded with information, leading to greater levels of stress and anxiety.

Among personal issues workers wrestle with, Allen said emotional problems related to the breakdown of a relationship – whether with a spouse, partner, child or even co-worker – was the single biggest reason cited by those accessing an EFAP.

EFAPs can also offer help to those in need of financial planning, bankruptcy, legal issues, or even those looking to find affordable child care or caregivers for elderly parents.

The most-recent study compiled data from 80,000 cases. EFAP users were asked to complete a questionnaire at their first session after seeking help and another questionnaire at their last EFAP session, providing information on changes in productivity or absenteeism at work.

Key findings include:

  • 63 per cent of employees said their productivity at work had been negatively impacted in the four weeks before they contacted their EFAP because of the issue that led to them calling.
  • Of the people who reported productivity loss in the month before accessing an EFAP, the average time away from work was 51.6 hours.
  • Employees seeking help through their EFAP recorded a 35.9 per cent increase in productivity at work, compared to their productivity just before seeking help.
  • One third of employees reaching out to the EFAP said they would have been off work for more than 20 days were it not for the support they received through the EFAP.

Allen said the average cost of an EFAP is about one per cent of the total cost of a health-benefits plan.

The latest study was conducted in consultation with Mark Attridge, a Minneapolis-based social psychologist and research scholar who specializes in workplace mental health and employee assistance programs. The dollar value for return on investment was calculated using the average wage for each client’s industry based on July 2013 Statistics Canada data and the case cost was standardized to the average.