Eugene Farrell Chair, UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) www.eapa.org.uk
The core purpose of an EAP is to help employees deal with life’s crises - and that’s always meant being ready for the unexpected.
COVID-19 has taken the level and range of challenges to a new and extraordinary level. EAPs have been there for people coping with isolated terrorist attacks, natural disasters and the fall-out from economic downturns, but not such a combination of problems affecting everyone on a national scale.
In response, EAP operations have needed to step up, making full use of their in-built capacity for flexibility and dealing with complex combinations of personal and work-related issues.
Rising to the challenge
Call demand across the UK has inevitably spiked. Early on in the pandemic, EAPs saw increases in demand for practical support. Initially many people weren’t sure of their rights around their jobs and their homes - laws around rentals, laying-off staff, implications of being ‘furloughed’ and the fast-tracked new benefit entitlements created by government.
As the epidemic deepened, we began to see more anxiety around the virus itself and the consequent psychological effects; accompanied, sadly, by grief and loss support as the number of deaths has increased and wider networks of people have been directly affected.
More specifically in terms of sectors, EAPs have been called on to support the frontline health care workers and other blue light services, ambulance trusts, fire and rescue and police. As would be expected, the pressures and stresses on healthcare staff has led to a significant uplift in calls that EAPs have had to work hard to respond to.
The key worker status of EAP counsellors and psychologists themselves has been recognised nationally, meaning a ring-fenced resource of time and availability has been secured to support around 14 million UK employees with EAP access.
The biggest challenge for EAP providers has been to ensure continuity of counselling services - making sure all those ongoing, in-depth face-to-face sessions are still taking place, and being offered remotely via telephone, online and video calls. The counselling community have quickly adapted and have been sharing good practice on delivering the same level of support and care online.
EAPs have been working closely with their clients to promote all the services available to employees, making sure everyone feels they have someone they can speak to - that they know their organisation is there for them. Website information was adapted early on, bolstered by new resources - live and recorded webinar sessions on the most pressing issues such as remote working, dealing with anxiety and grief, mindfulness and positivity. In the spirit of togetherness, many resources have been made available to the wider public.
Where training is needed - in important areas like supporting line managers to open up conversations around mental health and wellbeing with their remote team members - this is being carried out via webinar resources, conference and video calls.
No-one expects working life to simply ‘return to normal’, and there will be a post-Covid legacy for EAPs. The mass shift to working from home and the increased familiarity with online video calls have already started to change the nature of everyday habits. So remote counselling, for example, is likely to become much more the norm. Face-to-face will still be available at some level, and may well be seen as more the exception. Similarly, employers themselves will have seen the advantages and savings from using online resources.
Another significant legacy from the pandemic and the lockdown will be around trust and engagement. People have been looking to their employer as a source of some kind of certainty in a period of anxiety and disturbance, and it will be those organisations who have best supported their staff who will go on to benefit in terms of motivation and loyalty for many years to come.