I’ve often argued that EAPs have gotten a free pass —complacently marketing limited, outdated, poor-quality services, albeit at a relatively low price. Employers have willingly played along, readily purchasing this relatively cheap employee benefit so that they can check the box. “We have a mental health strategy.” Utilization is notoriously low, and most employers do little to promote the service beyond handing out a brochure or sending a link to new hires.

Recently, a client asked me, “What will become the key driver in the next 5 years moving employers away from EAPs?”

At a time when a lot of change is going on in mental health services, and market conditions are unprecedented, I can only guess 5 years ahead.

One possibility: EAPs survive as a bargain basement option. I can imagine benefit to more innovative, quality driven mental health service providers—those that may charge many times more than EAPs—helping clarify this distinction for employers.

I don’t foresee employers demanding more of EAPs, unless some jumbo employers collaboratively lead the way—for example, by setting standards thru purchasing consortiums.

Keep an eye on increased influence of organized labor. Maybe they will demand better quality. If I were running a mental health company, I might consider promotion direct to labor organizations as part of the long game. Not sure—it’s not my area of expertise.

A lot depends on consolidation. Do the newer solution providers consolidate and leverage their expanded resources to distinguish themselves from EAPs? Or do jumbo EAPs acquire and merge with some of the newer companies, in which case the future—in terms of quality and pricing—is anyone’s guess?

PS: I’m referring only to external EAPs (vendors). Not the internal employee assistance programs that health care organizations and universities sometimes provide for their employees.