Tech Insights: Measuring What Matters, or How HR Should We Evaluate EAPs?

Jul 22, 2015

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) make sense because they improve productivity by helping employees with personal problems.

Of course, that presumes they work. If they don’t work then they are a waste of time and money.

Do we know if EAPs work?

Traditional attitudes towards measuring EAP effectiveness can be a parody of the failings of HR: We have an EAP because it is “nice” but we don’t dare ask questions about effectiveness because it’s “a secret.” It’s surprising we’ve gotten away with spending so much money with so little scrutiny.

I was pleased to come across an EAP outcomes diagnostic tool (from Chestnut Global Partners) that does provide a reasonable degree of scrutiny. Here’s how it works:

When an employee engages with an EAP they do a questionnaire pre- and post-intervention to measure business outcomes like absenteeism, presenteeism, and engagement. If the outcomes improve then that is a strong piece of evidence that the EAP is working.

Measuring what matters

David Sharar, Chestnut’s Managing Director, notes that these are distal not proximal measures (yes, he’s a Ph.D) which means we are not measuring the effect the EAP intervention had on the employee’s issue (e.g. depression) but the impact on factors that matter to the business.

To me, measuring what matters to the business makes a lot of sense.

Sharar also notes that the data is based on self-reports and he understands that self-reports are reliable under some conditions but not others. I’d recommend checking the self-report on, for example, absenteeism, against real data (which is what the OMNI Institute in Denver did in their EAP study).

I wanted to point out that this is a great example of HR analytics. We have an answerable question: “Does the EAP work?” and we go out and gather data to find the answer. That is a far cry from the traditional world of buying EAP services because it’s “nice.”

What is interesting?

  • It’s great when HR is comfortable using terms like “proximal and distal measures” because it shows we are moving towards evidence-based management. Of course, we have to be able to turn around and say the same thing in everyday language when communicating to managers.
  • Similarly, it’s great when a vendor points to studies in peer-reviewed journals to support their claims of effectiveness. Here is what Sharar gave me: David Sharar et al, Evaluating the Workplace Effects of EAP Counselling, Journal of Health & Productivity, Vol. 6. No. 2, Nov 2012, and Richard Lennox et al, Development and Validation of the Chestnut Global Partners Workplace Outcome Suite, Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 25:107–131, 2010.

What is really important?

  • The standard of evidence HR uses to make decisions needs to improve; that’s what HR analytics is all about. The EAP outcomes survey is a good example of the kind of approach human resources should be taking as a matter of course.