A number of years ago, BenefitsPRO (then known as Benefits Selling) published an article titled: “EAPs: the secret weapon.” The gist was captured in the lede: “Employee assistance programs are often overlooked by benefits brokers, but they can be a valuable sales tool that cements your relationship to your client. Of all the benefits available to independent brokers, the employee assistance program seems to be the most neglected.”

Back then, part of the problem when it came to to brokers and EAPs was the dearth of solid evidence on the efficacy of EAPs regarding key workplace outcomes such as productivity, engagement, etc. Today, we have ample evidence to support the correlation, but the problem now is the emphasis among purchasers on reaching more people at lower costs, which is problematic on several levels. It focuses on utilization versus outcomes, where the latter is a far more meaningful indicator of ROI, and it squeezes both EAPs and brokers who have the narrowest of margins to work with.

It’s no secret that “traditional” EAPs are under threat from large outfits that offer low cost, low touch solutions or technology solutions promising higher utilization, but at a significantly higher price to employers.  In order to bring EAPs in at the lowest price points, many of the leading providers have shunted their services to phone lines or online self-service websites where users are offered little support or guidance.

Related: Employers failing to take action on employees’ mental health

Digital health solutions can help shift purchasing focus from costs to return on investment by supporting collaboration between clinicians and patients. Digitizing mental and behavioral health enables EAPs to “scale” their expertise to more efficiently and cost-effectively support more people with the most appropriate interventions: providing user-directed tools for self-paced education and training, and when needed, providing easy access to counselors and coaches. Ultimately, the value of digitizing mental and behavioral health care is in the focus on data collection and analysis, which systematically improves engagement, refines treatment, and delivers improved outcomes.

This article will address what brokers ought to look for in a “digital EAP,” from the  technology itself (does it just replicate an existing service in digital form or does it transform that service into something significantly more efficient and effective?) to evaluating whether your EAP partner is capable of providing thorough and comprehensive implementation support. It will also underscore how a “hybrid” EAP — technology-supported, with counselor access, all driven by data — can be an even more valuable sales tool for benefits sellers.

What brokers should look for 

It’s important to understand that digitization isn’t the same as digital transformation; simply moving processes to online platforms doesn’t mean engagement, utilization and, most importantly, outcomes, are improved. As the pressure increases on businesses to reduce or contain costs across their operations, purchasers often reduce their decision to: what is the best possible price for the service, as there is an underlying assumption that all services and service providers are equal except in price.

Digitizing mental and behavioral health enables service providers and practitioners to better serve more people by reaching them where they “live” — on their mobile devices. Real digital transformation is about tailoring technology to the way mental and behavioral professionals work and engage, enabling them to more efficiently and effectively support more people. Here are several core principles to consider in evaluating a digital EAP*:

*Note that by digital EAP we mean an EAP that uses a digital solution as an extension of their expertise and as a strategic tool, not as a replacement for their traditionally personalized support and interventions.  

  • Are they offering a value-based solution based on health, behavioral and cost outcomes?
  • How robust is the ability to track and report outcomes and ROI?
  • Does the technology connect users back to their EAP for more personal counseling? The platform or app should make it easy for employees to seek out clinical experts for personal guidance, and to augment and guide additional interventions and solutions.
  • Does their platform or app leverage AI and “prescriptive” analytics to transform information into insights that can guide decisions for patients, providers, organizations and populations?
  • Does the platform or app provide EAP clients with the ability to navigate the platform or application on their own?

Many “traditional” EAPs recognize the value of such a platform and they realize the need to scale their expertise to achieve better outcomes at lower costs, particularly if they’re going to survive in today’s harsh tech-driven landscape.  The key impediment to adoption is that most EAPs are not technically savvy, while some are even technology-averse. They may use technology for backend business processes, but not in actual employee engagement, counseling and treatment. This is, in part, because they are reluctant to entrust what they perceive as a fundamentally human interaction to an app or platform. And to be fair, these technologies are typically well outside their core competency. To overcome this, EAPs must partner with a technology vendor that can support them in customizing solutions for each client (which is to say, for each user across their book of business). 

Digital EAPS as technology partner

Digital EAPs will need to take on the role of a technology partner, shouldering most of the implementation and post-implementation support, from a needs analysis, to customization, promotion, deployment, to testing, training and follow-up. Brokers should expect their EAP partner to offer the following:

  1. Setting of implementation team and project goals.
  2. Customizing the platform or app; planning the integration; establishing the account interface over the length of the project.
  3. Training HR staff on the solution — not only how it operates and the features, but also from the aspect of how to promote it for their workforce.
  4. Train/orient employees.
  5. Develop communication plans and materials for sales promotion, program launch and ongoing engagement of users. The digital EAP ought to control and handle most of this so it’s not up to time-constrained HR managers and staff to drive the success of the program.
  6. Provide analytics related to user engagement and on measurable outcomes. They need to help clients understand the significance of that data so they can convey it to management and their workforce.

When the EAP supports the organization per the above, the initiative is far more likely to go smoothly, maximizing reach, engagement and outcomes. 

Conclusion 

While recent trends have not been in their favor, traditional EAPs that start down a digital path can remain competitive by providing more personalized and less expensive care, and, most importantly, by delivering better health and wellness outcomes.  Purchasers want their EAPs to help them achieve more efficient business operations and brokers want to be able to deliver a cost-effective, data-driven solution that enables their customers to achieve these objectives. All are looking to realize the promise of digital mental and behavioral health: solutions that improve existing diagnostic, treatment, and monitoring processes by making them faster, more accessible, more accurate, more reliable and less expensive.

Also: The role of EAPs in the wake of natural disasters

A digital EAP that offers intuitive user-driven tools and resources for initial engagement, end-to-end project management, smart automation and easy access to counseling, provides all stakeholders — EAPs, brokers and purchasers — with a roadmap for success.

Dr. Navya Singh is founder and Chief Clinical and Operations Officer for wayForward.