Virtual therapists and predictive mental health apps – the future of the EAP?
All the forces of modern work appear to be pushing for a freewheeling workforce: more mobile and individuals working remotely; the rise of the gig economy; the dominance of digital technology, says Andrew Kinder, chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
Despite the headlines, The Work Foundation is clear in its new campaign for ‘Good Work’ that, in this context, employers in future will increasingly be reliant on motivating a core group of employees, offering them security and wellbeing in return for loyalty and a willingness to develop and adapt. Productivity and competitiveness will be dependent on it.
In its new report into the role of the Employee Assistance Programme in workplaces, The Work Foundation has highlighted the missed opportunity for employers to integrate the EAP into a platform for ‘good work’, a wider culture of wellbeing, coaching and performance improvement.
With the future potential of the service in mind, we asked our members what they saw as being the future of the EAP as it evolves, and what’s needed to both meet the challenges presented by different groups of employees and their experiences.
Technology, inevitably, is expected to be the key to tailoring and provide more access for employees as part of busy lives.
“People are now less tied to the office, and the standard 9-5 working day is becoming less common. We expect technology will continue to play a bigger role which is why we’ve invested heavily in this area,” says Patrick Watt, Corporate Director at Bupa UK. “Staying close to the changing way employees behave and engage with work is vital to ensuring EAP provision remains effective.”
“Balancing the demands of different groups of users will also present challenges to providers, with younger employees preferring ready access on the move through smartphones and older ones preferring more traditional telephone and face to face services,” says Eugene Farrell, head of trauma support services, AXA PPP healthcare. “The emergence of apps that identify or predict changing mental health states could lead to automated outreach to people with the earliest signs of difficulty or flare-ups, taking preventive service provision to another level. Virtual reality environments may also have significant impact in how users interact with services both in a traditional sense as well as in the development of virtual therapists and mental health coaches.”
For Gillian Morris, Director of Professional Services, Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (Niamh), employers will be looking for more professional support, in whatever form it needs to take, in dealing with the increasing complexity of modern life in itself.
“If EAPs are to survive and thrive they must adapt to and understand the changing demographics and challenges of a modern and dynamic workforce. Young people working zero hour contracts and multiple jobs, the so-called sandwich generation working to support the generation below and care for the generation above and the older generation working longer and past retirement, with financial worries and debt increasingly becoming the common factor across all the generations.
“In any one year 1 in 4 people will experience anxiety or depression and by 2020 the World Health Organisation predicts depression will have reached epidemic proportions. Bad work, working environments are related to poor mental wellbeing and good work, working environments promote good mental health. Mental health and wellbeing therefore, is everyone’s business and EAP’s have a tremendous opportunity and increasingly central role to play, providing pragmatic workplace solutions to the pressures and challenges of modern life.”
Most importantly, according to EAP providers, is the essential future positioning of the EAP as part of a wider and holistic wellbeing culture and strategy for employers to see the benefits.
Jonathan Brown, RetailTRUST, Director of People and Wellbeing Services, points to how embracing digital technology to deliver services will require a different set of relationships: “It’s only possible when organisations move wellbeing from being a tick in the box exercise.”
Patrick Watt agrees: “The new Work Foundation report should serve as a challenge to the EAP market to develop products that address stigma, increase awareness and engagement and are integrated as part of an organisation’s health and wellbeing programme.”