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From familial problems to work issues, from financial struggles to mental health, addiction and substance abuse issues, life can at times feel overwhelming.

EAP counselors — counselors provided through an employee assistance program — can help by offering guidance and hope.

Here’s everything you need to know about EAP counseling.

An EAP counseling program is a confidential employer-employee program that provides aid and support to individuals facing personal or work-related problems.

Many companies have EAP counselors, or offer an EAP counseling program. According to the International Employee Assistance Professional Association, over 95 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs, and 80 percent of companies with 1,001 to 5,000 employees have EAPs.

“In many organizations, EAP counselors are housed offsite. Increasingly, employers provide EAP services through the use of outside vendors,” Arlene S. Hirsch, a counselor and contributor to the Society for Human Resource Management, writes. “While this helps ensure privacy and confidentiality, it also makes these services largely invisible.”

EAP counselors can provide a wide range of services and offer employees a great deal of support. Some individuals, for example, use EAP programs to help them cope with daily stressors in the workplace and at home. Others turn to EAP counselors for help with mental health issues, or drug and alcohol addiction. Others use EAP counseling services for grief assistance or marital support.

EAPs use a variety of practitioners, such as psychologists, licensed therapists, and substance abuse counselors.

EAP counselors are usually licensed therapists, which means that they have met state licensing requirements and have at least a master’s degree in majors such as:

  • professional counseling
  • social work
  • marriage and family therapy
  • addiction counseling
  • psychology

Here are a few issues EAP counselors can help you deal with or confront:

  • workplace conflicts
  • workplace-related trauma
  • mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression
  • substance abuse issues
  • grief or loss
  • relationship problems

Some EAPs offer other services, such as employee education, individual assessments, organizational assessments, management consultation, and legal, financial, and retirement assistance.

That said, EAP counseling is a type of short-term counseling, meaning long-standing relationships rarely occur. If you need additional assistance coping with and/or managing a personal or professional issue, your EAP counselor will refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, and/or addiction specialist.

As with any form of counseling, the benefits of EAP counseling are innumerable. EAP counseling can improve your overall health and wellness. Attending sessions can reduce levels of stress and anxiety and improve your outlook on life, and EAP counselors can help you overcome serious obstacles. They can assess you and refer you to providers who can assist you, if and when you need to make life changes.

However, EAP counseling doesn’t just benefit the employee. It also benefits the employer. According to Hirsch, “when organizations invest in the well-being of their employees, the organization benefits as well.”

Employees who seek counseling are more productive. They are more present. Studies have shown there is a correlation between EAP counseling and reduced absences, and work performance is generally higher. This means the rate of terminations and disciplinary actions is lower at companies which offer EAPs than those who do not.

While the process involved in locating an EAP counselor varies from location to location — and company to company — there are generally two ways to obtain an EAP counselor: through a mandate or through self-referral.

Self-referred EAP counseling

Most employees seek EAP counseling on their own. After all, no one knows the stresses and struggles you face better than yourself. To find an EAP counselor, refer to your employee handbook or contact your human resources department. They will be able to connect you with the appropriate counselor.

Mandatory EAP counseling

In some cases, an employer may make it compulsory for an employee to participate in an EAP. These instances are rare — mandatory referrals are generally made only if an employer believes an employee is a threat to themselves or others — but they can and do occur. An employee’s continued employment can be contingent on their willingness to participate.

In these cases, your human resources department will place you in contact with your company’s EAP provider. They may also provide you with a list of goals or expectations, and a timeline may be set. For example, your employer may say you need to attend a certain number of sessions to continue your employment or return to work.

EAP counseling — like all forms of counseling — is 100 percent confidential. While EAP counselors are offered through your employer, counselors can only give certain information to your boss and/or HR department. For example, if you’re mandated to attend counseling sessions, your employer can verify your attendance, but that’s it. A counselor cannot provide any additional information to the employer without the employee’s consent.

While EAP counseling may not be as prevalent or as well known as other forms of counseling, this service is a great way for employees to access free mental healthcare. It also gives individuals immediate access to help, calming tools, and stress relief. For more information about EAP counseling and to find out if your employer has an EAP, consult your company’s employee handbook or contact your HR department.