Governments must spend more on EAPs

By Angela Dorizas

Governments should be prepared to pay more for employee assistance programs if they are to make any headway in addressing mental health in the workplace.

That was the message from industry expert Grant Brecht, managing director of Grant Brecht and Associates and club psychologist for the Sydney Swans AFL team.

In an address to the AHPM Congress in Melbourne, Mr Brecht called for higher benchmarks for workplace intervention programs designed to enhance the emotional, mental and psychological wellbeing of all employees, known as employee assistant programs (EAPs).

“We’ve got to set some really decent benchmarks and value on our services,” Mr Brecht said.

“We know from some of the research that’s been done here and certainly from large research projects in the United States that EAPs do work well.

“They can work incredibly well if we run them with a bit more vigour than we have been and if we set the benchmarks at a higher level.”

Mr Brecht said service providers would be required to charge higher rates for the implementation of an effective EAP.

The public sector, he added, should be prepared to pay more for the services it requires.

“Governments have for some time now been providing cheap services,” Brecht told Government News.

“Governments should be putting enough resources into their employee assistance programs and other wellness programs as well to make sure that they get as close to being able to assist all the people requiring help.

“We’ve got an enormous opportunity that at the moment is being missed and has been missed for well over 20 or 30 years.”

Mr Brecht said as an EAP provider he previously held two government contracts but the programs were “too cheap”.

“I couldn’t resource my organisation to provide proper programs. They were ‘mickey mouse’ programs.”

Mr Brecht said he had no doubt this was still occurring within the industry.

“The frustrating thing is that it is easy to do something about it,” he said.

“EAPs cost such a small amount of money in terms of health resources – it’s ridiculous.

“They could double, triple or quadruple their spend and it would still be an insignificant amount of their overall budget on reducing risk in the workplace.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than three million people in Australia experience depression, anxiety or related drug and alcohol issues each year. However, only 50 per cent of people with depression seek help.

This has a significant impact on the productivity of the Australian workforce. Research conducted by the University of Queensland in 2004 revealed that each year, undiagnosed depression in the workplace cost $4.3 billion in lost productivity – and that figure excluded insurance claims, part-time and causal employees, retrenchment, recruitment and training.

Mr Brecht said the workplace was the ideal environment for talking depression and improving productivity.

“It’s the only place really where we have this captivated population,” he said.

“We can go in and educate and do screenings.

“We can get people face to face with psychologists so they don’t fear seeing a psychologist, so they understand the way that a cognitive behavioural program or an intervention may work, or understand how to utilise other mental health services that they may need.”

It’s a view shared by Sean Sullivan, president and CEO of the US-based Institute for Health and Productivity Management (IHPM).

“EAPs really are at the frontline of all kinds of behavioural and mental health issues,” Mr Sullivan told Government News.

“EAPs are not yet seen by employers for all that they really should be.”

Mr Sullivan said employers generally undervalued the role of EAPs, because many did not perceive depression and other related issues to be genuine health problems.

“These issues are a little more nebulous,” he said.

“What enlightened employers are seeing is that these things have a large impact on people’s total health and wellbeing.

“That in turn affects their ability to work well.”

Mr Sullivan said there was “tremendous room for improvement” in EAP implementation, not just in Australia, but across the globe.

“They do have a much larger role to plan than they do now.”

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