AVMA News

Exploring employee assistance programs for veterinary practices: Are they a bother or benefit?

EAPs offer a variety of resources but often see low employee participation
November 29, 2022

When it comes to selecting employee benefits, owners and managers of veterinary practices may have a hard time selecting the best options. And employees are not always aware of the full breadth of options they have access to, particularly those programs that exist outside their insurance plan.

As practice owners look to innovative solutions to attract and retain staff members—as well as promote mental health and well-being—an employee assistance program could be the latest untapped resource in their benefits toolkit. An EAP is a package that helps assist employees with personal and work-related challenges that could impact their job performance, health, or mental well-being.

EAPs are available to employers through third-party benefit providers. A number of veterinary associations and companies have partnered with these providers of employee benefits to offer EAP services to members as one of their benefits.

Two colleagues at a veterinary clinic sitting together in the back office during their break
Employee assistance programs can be a valuable and convenient benefit to help connect veterinary professionals with health and well-being resources.

Pricing for an EAP can fluctuate, but many providers offer an array of customizable menus to best fit a practice. For instance, if an employer wants only to focus on mental health benefits, the employer can select from a list of specific services for employees.

Mental health and well-being

Lisa M. Stewart-Brown is the program manager of mental health and well-being for Banfield Pet Hospital. Headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, the organization employs over 3,600 veterinarians in more than 1,000 hospital locations throughout the United States. Banfield’s health and well-being program is made up of various tools, benefits, and services to address associates’ mental, emotional, and physical safety and health.

“We knew that if we wanted our associates to feel inspired to seek help and utilize our programs and benefits, they needed to be relevant to people’s specific needs,” Stewart-Brown said.

She continued, “Having such a program in place can also help to destigmatize the topic of mental health in the workplace, which is often a key barrier to people getting help.”

Results from the third Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study, released in early 2022, showed that 70% of veterinarians surveyed said they believe that mental health treatment helps veterinarians lead normal lives. A majority (58%) said they would feel comfortable discussing mental health topics with other veterinarians. However, among those suffering from serious psychological distress, only 22% said they would feel comfortable taking time off to seek treatment, and only 25% felt their employer or practice partners would be supportive.

Further, 59% of distressed veterinarians and 65% of distressed veterinary support staff said they needed mental health treatment in the past year but did not get it. For veterinarians, that was a higher percentage than in previous wellbeing studies, according to the study’s authors.

The authors also suggested that employers should acknowledge that low well-being and mental distress impact a number of working adults and encourage team members to address these problems; provide mental health insurance coverage, an employee assistance program, or both; and provide a work climate that fosters well-being and mental health.

According to the employee wellness platform Nivati, an employee assistance program increases a person’s engagement and participation in the workplace. It can also help employees avoid the mistakes and reductions in productivity that usually accompany difficult times in life.

Stewart-Brown noted, “Not only are Banfield associates taking advantage of our mental health and well-being resources at nearly twice the average program utilization, but 95% of associates who contacted a mental health provider through our Associate Assistance Program reported a resolution to the presenting issue they reached out about.”

Wellness and other resources

For employees who have personal or work-related problems, employee assistance programs offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services. EAPs can also offer 24/7 coverage, national therapist networks, wellness websites, consultation for supervisors, and other services.

Easy-to-access counseling services provide a way to help employees with any personal issues that may be affecting their job performance, including a variety of issues from stress-related conditions and substance abuse to grief and relationship problems. Coverage extends to the employees’ dependents as well and applies to nonwork topics such as legal and financial issues and resources to help secure elder care and child care.

Jamie Falzone, executive director of the Massachusetts VMA, said part of her role is to identify new benefits that will serve MVMA members, both in terms of workplace well-being and personal well-being.

That’s why the MVMA partnered with CorpCare to provide a discounted EAP program for members’ clinics. Participating clinics have a choice of offering plans with three or five counseling sessions. The cost is $200 a year per hospital for up to three sessions for each staff member and $350 a year per hospital for up to five sessions or each staff member.

“Of those practices that have an EAP, it is really appreciated by employees, and it’s a low-cost way to show employers’ commitment to wellness,” Falzone explained. She has found that having an EAP available helps with retention and happiness in the workplace, and she hopes to see more members using one.

Falzone mentioned that CorpCare has a dedicated marketing person to help promote the program to MVMA practices. The company provides periodic newsletter clips and information to include in weekly member email messages and handles all promotional efforts, including offering interactive resources such as webinars.

The Colorado VMA, Illinois State VMA, Ohio VMA, and Portland VMA in Portland, Oregon, are just some of the other associations that use CorpCare EAPs. In addition, the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association has an EAP with member-only pricing through CuraLinc Healthcare.

Challenges

The payment plan for most traditional EAPs is per employee per month, which means that the less they are used, the more profit the provider makes. Participating businesses are charged per possible person who may use the EAP. Often employers end up paying for a service that the vast majority of employees do not use.

“One common concern regarding EAP benefits is low employee participation, with some companies across industries seeing utilization in the 1% to 3% range,” said Banfield’s Stewart-Brown.

If an employer doesn’t sufficiently promote the program internally, it can be easy for employees to write off a program, especially if they don’t know where to go for more information or whom to contact.

Stewart-Brown said, “One of the most common ways our associates learn about Banfield’s program is through word of mouth, which signals it’s OK to talk about mental health, seek help, and that the EAP benefit was helpful.”

Another barrier to care is many people don’t know whether they have access to an EAP. According to the Merck well-being study, 31% of responding veterinarians reported that their employer provided an EAP, 44% said their employer did not provide an EAP, and 26% didn’t know.

One concern that employees have about an EAP is confidentiality. Some employees worry that they must notify their company if they are utilizing services from an EAP or that their workplace will be aware of whatever personal information is shared. However, the vast majority of EAP providers do not share any information with an employer other than how many participants use the service.

Getting help

In an industry that can carry high levels of stress, many employers view an EAP as a straightforward way to support their employees.

“There can be many pain points in the profession, and EAPs can help address them,” said Falzone of the MVMA.

While using an EAP can require a ramp up time for employers, the benefits can create happier, healthier employees, proponents say.

“We believe that cultivating help-seeking behaviors among staff is the key to creating a culture of well-being and driving higher benefit utilization,” Stewart-Brown said. “Offering tools and resources is a great start, but if your workforce doesn’t feel comfortable reaching out for help, they won’t utilize them.”

A version of this article appears in the January 2023 print issue of JAVMA.