Evaluating Employee Assistance Programs: Concerns and Strategies for Public Employers

Article excerpt

The growth in numbers of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in the public sector in recent years raises questions about their effects for employers. However, effective evaluation appears to be elusive. The article examines the special issues surrounding EAPs with particular attention to the unique setting of public sector programs. A broad evaluation strategy is recommended and outlined, and suggestions for its use are made.

Public employers are making major investments of resources in employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs cover over two million civilian employees in the federal government.(1) Surveys of state and local governments indicate that EAPs are widely used in these settings as well. A 1985 survey found thirty-nine states with formally constituted EAPs,(2) while some 200 municipalities reported operating such programs in 1987.(3) Klinger et al. found that nearly 86 percent of respondents to a survey of national agencies, state governments and the 100 largest cities used EAPs.(4) With this explosion in programs, it is clear that millions of dollars are being spent by public jurisdictions on employee assistance. While many of these programs began as efforts to deal with alcohol abuse and its impact on employee performance, EAPs have evolved into much more comprehensive efforts. Now, the typical EAP deals with any problem which interferes with employee productivity in the workplace. Many programs provide services to the families of employees as well.

Natural questions for public managers, policy makers, and taxpayers are what are employee assistance programs accomplishing? Are they worth the resources they expend? Thus, evaluation of EAPs is a significant issue for the public sector. Advocates are promoting EAPs to management on the grounds that they can make major contributions to organizations. One important justification which is often heard is that EAPs save money through reduced absenteeism, reduced employee turnover, and improved productivity of individual employees and the organization as a whole. EAPs also are touted as mechanisms for reducing health costs, particularly those associated with behavioral health.(5) For public sector organizations constantly faced with constrained resources, these promises are extremely attractive.

Advocates of EAPs also suggest that management will be improved through the operation of such programs. Managers will be able to get help for employees who disrupt the work of the organization with the expectation that the work group will function more effectively once such disruptive influences are removed. Furthermore, treating troubled and disruptive employees will allow managers to transfer the increment of their time normally devoted to handling the problems caused by such employees to more organizationally productive endeavors. Clearly, EAPs have developed as a result of the concern for humanizing the organization as well as the concern with resource conservation and productivity.

In this context, the importance of EAP evaluation becomes clear. Many claims have been raised about the positive consequences of EAPs for the organization. It is important to know which claims are accurate and which are not. First, do EAPs really result in higher productivity? Second, even if EAPs improve productivity, do they reduce costs, and if so which costs? The cost issue is particularly important in the public sector where budgets may be small to begin with and expenditures are closely scrutinized by a variety of factors. Third, do EAPs really enhance the operation of organizations? Is it possible to improve management practice as a function of having an EAP? This question is particularly critical in view of the continuing search for ways of making public organizations operate more efficiently.

Considering that the stakes are so high, it seems appropriate that evaluation strategies for EAPs should be broadly conceived such that a wide range of questions can be addressed carefully and effectively. …