An increasing number of multinationals are offering employee assistance programs to their workforce around the world. This is to be applauded for many reasons, not least of which is that an EAP is often the only mental health/work life resource that is either freely available or easily accessible in many countries. There are many examples of good implementation strategy, but sadly there are as many examples of poor execution, resulting in low levels of engagement, program utilization and ultimately program cancellation.
Below are some key factors organizations should consider to maximize the success of a global EAP launch.
Strategic positioning of EAP
The organization needs to be clear why it believes that EAP is important. Whether the focus is on the provision of mental health support to its employees or on helping to build resilience to assist with the increasing pressures of work or on the promotion of wellness at work, the strategic intent should be clearly stated. Smart organizations choose to enshrine this message in a formal corporate strategy policy, i.e. a wellness or human capital strategy. The EAP is typically referenced as one of the initiatives that the organization is committed to as part of its broader strategy. This has the advantage that it is likely to be available for all staff to see via their intranet, employee handbook and new-hire training. It is key that the strategy and its rationale are understood by senior leaders in each country and, like all corporate policies, clearly communicated to all employees.
Consultation with key stakeholders
Most multinationals that have EAPs will have implemented them first in the country of their corporate headquarters. This is typically in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and a small number of other countries where EAPs are widely accepted. The decision to launch globally may be driven by numerous factors; the need to harmonize HR benefits, a genuine desire to implement what the organization considers to be a key people initiative, or a global response to rising stress levels or mental health related absenteeism. The process of implementation, however, can create significant challenges.
The most important corporate decision is whether the EAP becomes a mandatory initiative or a voluntary one that each country opts into. Although this is a critical distinction, and one that requires considerable thought and analysis, the corporate team is well advised to invest significant time and energy in consulting and communicating with HR and other leaders around the world. The EAP concept is still likely to be new, if not unknown, in many locations so time describing EAP, its services and addressing issues of confidentiality is time well spent. It is during this process that organizations should begin to identify locations where the program will require adaptations to better fit with cultural norms and expectations and to identify possible country champions.
Although most global vendors will maintain that they can launch a global program within a three month timeline, an organization needs to consider more than just the practical and logistical aspects of implementation. For example, if some countries/teams seem reluctant to embrace an EAP, it could be short-sighted and possibly foolish to proceed with launch in those countries before the leadership team is ready.
Organizations should not be afraid to consider phased implementations. In addition to reducing logistic challenges, especially with small corporate HR teams, phasing allows the organization to work with its chosen vendor to tailor the launch activity in key countries using the expertise of the EAP team to educate leadership and address local concerns about the program.
Time spent preparing the local teams should reap the reward of better engagement and utilization.
Investment in program awareness
All too often multinationals rush into global implementation and fail to take into account the issues mentioned above. This results in insufficient program promotion at a local level. In countries where the EAP concept is well established and aligned closely with cultural practices, engagement can occur despite poor promotion. However, in more challenging environments and cultures, inadequate promotion is likely to result in very low levels of utilization which in turn will raise serious questions about the return on investment and trigger calls from local management to terminate the program. Organizations are therefore encouraged to invest in promoting the program internally at each of their locations, utilizing as much as possible on-site activities and customized marketing materials.