Employee assistance programs—which offer staffers help with mental health, financial, substance abuse, family care, and other issues—have long been a staple of school district benefit packages.
Now, with the pandemic taking a toll on the well-being of principals, teachers, and other K-12 staff, some districts are seeing an increase in the number of employees using those programs, which typically cover dependents and household members as well.
But even in the districts that have seen some growth, officials worry that employees may not be fully taking advantage of EAPs, which in pre-pandemic times were often used to support the disciplinary process and may carry a stigma.
Some who oversee EAP programs now wonder whether EAPs need to rebrand to meet the current needs of district staff and whether districts should step up efforts to bring the programs to employees.
Howard E. Fields, an assistant superintendent of human resources in the Kirkwood School District in suburban St. Louis County, Mo., acknowledged the lingering stigma around mental health, in general, and in how EAPs were used pre-pandemic, mainly as a part of a compliance process.
“EAP does need a new brand,” he said.
Looking for ways to increase appeal—and usage
The Columbus, Ohio, school district saw the untapped potential of EAPs and rebranded its program even before the pandemic.
One of the biggest changes was incorporating the program into the school system’s existing wellness initiatives to help reduce the stigma around accessing the EAP and to increase participation. The term “EAP” isn’t used as much anymore. The school system also got a new outside service provider and found additional and more convenient ways for teachers, principals, and others to access the services.
We want people to know it’s OK to continue using the service; it’s OK to continue seeking support. It’s OK to not be OK; no one is 100 percent all the time."
Rather than waiting on the phone to schedule an appointment or meet with a counselor, for example, staffers can now get help via live-online chat or by e-mail. They can still meet with counselors in person. The district also added Talkspace, the online counseling app, which allows users to chat or text with a licensed therapist around their schedules.
“When you are dealing with a high-stress situation, just waiting on hold can be daunting,” said Courtney Hale, the director of Total Rewards, the name for Columbus’ wellness and benefits programs.
The district also added programs aimed at stressors that can trigger anxiety, such as financial wellness. It communicated the additional resources through its wellness website, newsletters, e-blasts, and webinars led by its new service provider, Hale said.
Part of the impetus for the rebranding and increased communication was to ensure that employees knew that the district supported their overall well-being, said Michael De Fabbo, the district’s chief talent officer.
For example, if an employee receives a cancer diagnosis, counseling through the EAP program can help manage the clinical diagnosis as well as the reverberations that follow, Hale said.
When De Fabbo arrived in Columbus in 2019, the EAP program was still very much a transaction, he said.
“It was very much structured around someone has an issue, we deal with an issue, we move to the next issue,” he said. “We are trying to get away from that and really focus on what is important to an employee when they come to work.”
Hale’s position was once known as the director of human resources administration. Now, it’s the director of Total Rewards, focused on employee wellness and satisfaction.
“This was a program that was kind of in the closet as something that we needed to check off; but we didn’t really do a good job of promoting it, putting it out there for our employees to know that it was there,” Hale said.
After the rebranding, EAP utilization nearly tripled, from about 10 percent in 2020 to 27 percent by the end of 2021, a period that coincided with the most-intense part of the pandemic.
Among requests for clinical support, the increase came in categories such as emotional assistance, stress, occupational help, and relationships and families, De Fabbo said.
Of the 2,080 staff interactions with district-offered EAP services from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2021, about a quarter were from staff members seeking help with emotional issues, nearly double over the last two years, according to De Fabbo. Eleven percent were stress-related, and 10 percent were work-related.
“I think that makes a lot of sense. We are dealing with a lot of things differently,” De Fabbo said. “It’s a lot of stress, and people need support in figuring out how to navigate those feelings.”
Hale and De Fabbo are aiming to have utilization reach 40 or 50 percent.
As the pandemic recedes into the background, “we want people to know it’s OK to continue using the service; it’s OK to continue seeking support,” Hale said. “It’s OK to not be OK; no one is 100 percent all the time. So, when you do feel you need that support, it is there for you.”
Launching new supports in response to the pandemic
Officials in the Desert Sands Unified School District in La Quinta, in California’s Coachella Valley, launched a slew of supports after taking stock of the mental health challenges the pandemic presented to staffers. The supports included a monthly wellness calendar and community that offered daily mental health tips to staff. The district’s supports also targeted reducing overall stress, including working to reduce a substitute shortage.
“Sometimes people look at what the teacher’s job is, but they don’t realize that the teachers are doing this along with everyone else in the world that’s suffered their own tragedies and their own personal trauma,” said Laura Fisher, the district’s assistant superintendent for student support services.
But it was a program Fisher brought to the school system for students and families in 2019 that resonated most with staff during the pandemic, not the existing EAP scheme.
During 2021, there were just barely 23 staff contacts made with Desert Sands’ EAP program, with 14 out-of-network referrals for additional (usually more intensive) support, Fisher said.
On the other hand, Care Solace, a service that provides comprehensive supports, including homeless assistance and SEL and mental health aid, had 278 communications with staff in 2021.
Fisher doesn’t know exactly why more teachers and principals are using the newer service, but she thinks it could be that teachers became more familiar with what Care Solace offered in the course of recommending it to students and families and from hearing their feedback.
Even with those two programs to help staff with mental health issues, the district has used federal COVID-19 relief funds to increase the number of counselors and mental health supports of both staff and students—a challenge, Fisher said, given the demand for those health professionals across the country.
Some programs get limited use
In Fresno, Calif., however, officials have not seen a corresponding demand during the pandemic for mental health services through the use of district-provided mental health supports.
The number of employees seeking assistance for clinical support (for example, anxiety and stress) remained flat in the six months before and after the pandemic, but increased to 12 percent over the last six months, according to Oscar Mendoza, the district’s business operations manager.
“When the pandemic started I don’t think many of us knew where all of this was heading,” he said. “It wasn’t as obvious that this was going to be mental health pandemic, as well as a health pandemic, in general. I think it took us, and the population, just a little bit to start reacting to that; so, that’s why I think we didn’t necessarily see a big shift in utilization over the first six months of the pandemic.”
He credits increased communication, through e-mails, newsletters, brochures sent to principals, and messaging through the district’s collective bargaining units and its health management board with the recent increase in participation.
“If they see it enough, then they will connect the dots, that this is here, this is needed, this is good for us, and we can absolutely use it,” he said.
But there are still indications from the usage reports that the staff needs mental health support.
“While the EAP program, historically, has been a lesser-known and maybe smaller benefit, in terms of overall expense, we are starting to recognize that it can be very impactful for those who need it but may not know they need it,” Andrew De La Torre, Fresno’s executive director of benefits and risk management. “As more people utilize it, they become more comfortable talking about it, and then can advocate to others about its use.”
Mental health supports tied to retention
Mental health supports are intrinsically linked to Indianapolis Public Schools’ efforts to attract and retain a high-quality, diverse staff, said Alex Moseman, the director of talent acquisition at Indianapolis Public Schools.
In Indianapolis, the EAP comes with 10 free counseling sessions per issue.
The district hasn’t seen a spike in use, with EAP usage remaining steady since the fall of 2019, increasing only slightly this past winter, Moseman said.
Still, the district is buttressing supports for staff. Just last month, it signed a two-year contract with Talkspace, the counseling app, which is also free to participants.
“One of the reasons we wanted to explore an additional support or additional offering was knowing, one, that EAP can, to some extent, be a kind of one-size-fits-all model,” Moseman said, “and wanting to provide other avenues for staff to get the mental health and wellness supports that they need.”
It was also an acknowledgment that staff shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to find services that often were in high demand, he said.
“It did not feel right to continue to direct people [only] to EAP ... given the amount of stress and trauma we acknowledge were happening in our schools and across all communities,” Moseman said.
The move was also driven by staff feedback from teachers about their experiences using the EAP services. The teachers wanted more mental health supports as well as flexibility in how and when they can access them.
The district also is hoping that the mental health support, along with other efforts, including retention bonuses, will help stem any exodus. Staff resignations increased the first year of the pandemic, stabilized, then started to creep up last year, he said.
Other districts are also looking at how their mental health supports can help retain employees. Columbus was one of the first districts in the country to take the week of Thanksgiving off as a “wellness week,” and the district will do so again in the upcoming school year.
De Fabbo, Columbus’ chief talent officer, hopes the wellness week will become a permanent feature in the district’s calendar.
A healthier staff is not only better for students; those employees are also likely to stick around, he said.
“I don’t think any district can say they are focused on retention work and not also focused on wellness work and staff well-being,” he said. “Those two things, for me, go hand in hand, which is why we adapted our entire organizational structure because that focus has to be there if you want to retain your staff.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as To Support Stressed Staff Members, Districts Are Turning to an Overlooked Resource