Many school districts have long-established programs that can help employees weather the emotional and mental strain of the pandemic and other global events, along with a range of life stressors.
They’re often underutilized, for a variety of reasons. Employees may not know about the programs. They may be inconvenient to use. And workers may be reluctant to access a service that, to many, is associated with mental illness or disciplinary issues.
Here’s how districts can ensure employees are aware of these employee assistance programs and get the most out of them.
Rebrand to make the program more welcoming and inclusive
Employees may already know about their district’s employee assistance program. But the words don’t always evoke positive vibes. For many K-12 employees, the interactions with EAPs are rooted in not-so-pleasant origins, such as a principal or boss recommending they take advantage of the program because of a workplace issue.
It’s the district’s job to inform employees that those same services can help them with a range of life issues, including coping with a medical diagnosis, elder care, child care, financial pressures, suicide prevention, or help with substance abuse.
The Columbus, Ohio, district, for example, folded its EAP program into its wellness initiatives and rebranded under the umbrella of “Total Rewards,” which covers both the EAP and other wellness programs. The district now largely eschews the term “EAP.”
“We tell people about what the offerings are, and then we point them in the right direction to those offerings,” said Michael De Fabbo, Columbus’ chief talent officer. “People don’t feel like they are utilizing EAP, but they are utilizing EAP.”
Rebranding also helps remove some of the negative associations that districts must work hard to counter.
“When people hear ‘mental health’ or when you hear ‘seeing a therapist,’ there’s a little bit of stigma there,” said Oscar Mendoza, the business operations manager in the Fresno Unified School District in California. “Organizations as a whole really have to learn how to remove the stigma from this, so that our members feel open and comfortable and just willing to utilize these services—because they are definitely needed.”
Evaluate what’s offered
It’s helpful for districts to ascertain whether their programs are meeting staff needs and whether they’re offered at times and in modes that are convenient. Are counselors only available during the day, requiring teachers to miss teaching or planning periods to seek help? Is your provider giving you the best bang for your buck?
Before the pandemic, officials in Columbus sought out a new company to handle the district’s EAP program because they wanted to offer more services to employees and to do so in ways that would be more convenient.
With the new provider, employees can get help through online chats or by sending an e-mail as opposed to only via the telephone. The district also added what it’s calling “concierge support,” which helps employees manage secondary issues related to their original cause for concern, like billing or transfer of medical records.
“Navigating through the health-care industry is extremely difficult and can cause a lot of stress on a person,” said Courtney Hale, the director of Columbus’ Total Rewards. “It’s like using this service as a wraparound, so that we are addressing more than just the emotional and mental support.”
Step up communication
Many districts are finding that a lot of their employees do not know that they can access these services—often free of charge. And many don’t know the range of life-management supports the programs provide, from legal assistance to financial wellness.
Those are some of the reasons many districts have stepped up communications. Fresno sends brochures to principals and department heads so that if they ever have to recommend the service to a teacher or staff member, the information is right at the table. The same information is also available from the district’s human resources department. The district’s joint health management board, made up of representatives from the administration and the unions, also sends out messages to the district. Individual unions also do their part, Mendoza said.
Columbus’ wellness team has also upped its communication game, dispatching e-blasts and newsletters to keep employees informed. Account executives from Health Advocates have also hosted webinars to talk to employees—and answer their questions—about the benefits available.
“We are seeing that spike [in usage] because we’re doing so many outreaches,” Hale said.
The only way districts can know whether the services they provide are hitting the spot is to ask their employees.
That’s what Indianapolis did.
Through a series of focus groups, the district learned that while teachers were in need of mental health supports, those offered through the EAP were not always available at a convenient time, according to Alex Moseman, the director of talent acquisition at Indianapolis Public Schools.
That led the district to pursue a partnership with Talkspace, the online therapy app, where staff have free access to therapists around their schedules.
One Columbus employee told officials that calling for help actually heightened their anxiety in a way that going online and chatting with someone did not.
Ease of use and privacy also are things for districts to consider.
“It is interesting that there is this inherent ability to interact with someone online that feels more anonymous than dialing someone on the phone now,” De Fabbo said.
Connect to existing programs
EAPs don’t have to be the be all and end all. Many districts already have a glut of independent programs that target staff mental health and well-being.
In Columbus, officials are connecting employees with additional resources available through the district’s health insurance.
Fresno, over the last few years, has increased its emphasis on social-emotional supports, along with increasing the number of social workers and counselors in schools. While those efforts have been largely student-focused, they’re also helping teachers.
Desert Sands Unified, also in California, has found that staffers are connecting more with Care Solace, a program that it initially sought out before the pandemic to help students and families on issues, from mental health to housing and food challenges, to individualized education programs for students with disabilities. The district’s mental health and counseling workers are also available to assist staff.
“We need [our staff] to be able to provide an instructional, educational, caring environment for our students,” said Laura Fisher, the district’s assistant superintendent for student support services. “We need to provide that support for them so they’re able to provide that support for our students.”