What Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?

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What Is an Employee Assistance Program?

Employee Assistance Program

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are benefits that some employers use to help their workers get access to short-term counseling or therapy services as well as provide some types of psychological assessment.

Typically, an EAP grants employees access to a set number of sessions (usually less than six) with a therapist, and the employee would not accrue any co-pay, deductible, or other out-of-pocket costs for the service.

Some larger companies might have providers on staff to offer therapy sessions through the EAP. However, many either offer direct payment to the provider of the employee’s choice or contract with a specific agency to offer the EAP sessions.

If you are considering therapy for your mental health, you can check with your employer about EAPs as an option for accessible services at no cost to you.

History of Employee Assistance Programs

The first EAPs in the United States were developed in the 1930s as a resource for employees struggling with alcoholism. Businesses realized that employees performed better when they had access to confidential resources to treat their drinking and began offering resources as a benefit.

Companies often offer EAPs because increased access to services has been shown to decrease turnover and sick days while increasing employee satisfaction. Many employers offer increased EAP benefits following times of stress or collective trauma, as we have seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Types of Employee Assistance Programs

Companies can develop internal EAPs or offer external EAPs. An internal EAP is when a company employs providers to offer EAP services to their employees, and an external EAP uses providers not affiliated with the organization. Details about the pros and cons of these two types of EAPs are listed in the tables below.

Internal EAPs

Pros
  • Providers have internal knowledge of the company and can better understand and relate to employee stressors and concerns

  • The therapist might have more power to request accommodations for employees if appropriate

  • Providers employed by the organization may have faster and more flexible availability

  • Employees do not need to find referral information

Cons
  • Providers might only work with employees rather than employees and their families

  • Employees might be hesitant to talk to a therapist employed at their company

  • Employees cannot choose their therapist if they have specific needs

  • Companies might not employ diverse providers or those trained in various diagnoses and interventions

External EAPs

Pros
  • Employees can more confidently trust that confidentiality will be maintained

  • Providers might seem more unbiased as an outside source rather than a fellow employee

  • Employees can choose any therapist who will accept their EAP payment

  • Spouses or children can take advantage of the EAP more easily

  • External EAP providers might be able to continue seeing you for a sliding scale rate after you use your EAP sessions

Cons
  • Many providers do not accept EAP plans

  • Employees need to find their own provider

  • Many providers do not have immediate openings

  • Providers are not vetted by the company for quality

There are also organizations that specifically offer EAP sessions. These companies employ or contract with therapists to provide care and companies that want to offer EAPs to their employees.

In this instance, your therapist would not be directly employed by your boss. However, depending on their contract, the therapist might not have the flexibility to offer you ongoing care if you would like to continue therapy after using your EAP sessions.

How to Use Your Employee Assistance Program

Your employer (or the employer of the family member whose benefits you use) should provide information about the benefits available to you. The company’s human resources department should have details about how many sessions are covered, who in your family can use the EAP, and providers that you can see with your EAP.

With an internal EAP, the human resources department can put you in touch with the therapist or therapists employed by the company to help you get started and schedule your first session.

If you have trouble finding a provider who will accept your external EAP, your company’s human resources department should offer you the names of providers who have accepted the EAP in the past. They can help you reach out to those providers, and they can answer questions about coverage and payment.

When You Might Benefit from Using Your Employee Assistance Program

Because EAPs include a limited number of sessions, therapists seeing clients through an EAP often focus on short-term, specific therapy goals. Theoretical orientations that lend themselves to shorter therapy lengths include:

Short-term therapy approaches can be helpful for individuals dealing with life stress, adjustment disorders, or wanting support in developing self-care or coping skills.

Drawbacks and Limitations of Employee Assistance Programs

Because EAPs provide a small, set number of sessions, clients in need of long-term care will not get the treatment they need just using their EAP. If you are experiencing psychotic or manic symptoms, moderate to severe depressive episodes, or extreme anxiety, an EAP likely will not offer enough sessions to treat your concerns or have the availability to prescribe necessary medications. Additionally, if you have significant trauma history, an EAP will not be able to provide the level of support that you need.

Although therapists who accept EAPs may be able to continue seeing you after you have used your sessions, switching to either insurance or self-pay could lead to unexpected costs, especially if your health insurance plan has a high deductible.

If your employer uses an internal EAP, your therapist might not be permitted to keep seeing you after your sessions run out. In the event that you need ongoing care, the therapist can provide a referral to another provider, which would mean that you have to establish a relationship with a new therapist.

EAPs can also limit which therapists you can see. Even if your employer offers an external EAP, the therapist who specializes in your unique issue might not accept EAPs as a form of payment. Additionally, EAPs do not typically offer additional services like medication management.

Despite their limitations, EAPs offer another way to access mental health care without cost to the client. If your employer offers EAP benefits, it can be worthwhile to look into your options for receiving care.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hargrave, G. E., Hiatt, D., Alexander, R., & Shaffer, I. A. (2008). Eap treatment impact on presenteeism and absenteeism: Implications for return on investmentJournal of Workplace Behavioral Health23(3), 283–293.

  2. Couser, G. P., Nation, J. L., & Hyde, M. A. (2021). Employee Assistance Program response and evolution in light of COVID-19 pandemicJournal of Workplace Behavioral Health36(3), 197–212.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.