How To Choose An EAP

January 19, 2017

To alleviate a wide variety of issues, including the effects of workplace stress, financial concerns, and relationship problems, many employers offer services called Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Despite many employers offering them, however, EAPs are often not fully used by employees.

A recent article in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers tips for employers looking to increase EAP participation. These include picking right the EAP for the size of their workforce and ensuring that EAP counselors have the right education and experience to meet employees’ needs. Quoted in the article, Mandi Conforti, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson, noted in particular that employers should look for counselors who can properly assess employees needs. Said Conforti, “You need counselors who are clinically trained to do biopsychosocial evaluations, because many people contacting an EAP have more than one problem they are dealing with.”

Not surprisingly, the most effective EAPs are those that are customized to the needs of a specific workforce. This is especially true when there are high rates of issues such as alcohol or substance abuse.

To read the article in Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM), click here.

For more information on EAPs, see our previous OneExchange blog post on the topic here.


For highlights of my perspective in articles and blogs, see my comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This post is part of our Exchange Innovator Series featuring leading private exchange, health care reform and Medicare experts from Willis Towers Watson. See John Barkett and Sherri Bockhorst.

I’m Rob Harkins, private exchange practice leader for mid-market employers, for Willis Towers Watson’s private exchange business sector.

As part of the Health and Benefits segment, it’s my mission to ensure satisfaction internally, as well as externally, with our leading mid-market clients, accessing a modernized technological approach to benefit delivery, whether their need is individual Medicare, pre-65 retiree benefits, or group coverage.

I’ve been heavily involved during the merger of Willis and Towers Watson, enhancing the transition and acting as a bridge between our Health & Benefits consulting group and our base of mid-market employers, with populations ranging from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.

My health insurance roots


Baltimore with my wife and friends

I cut my teeth on exchanges at Extend Health – a start-up that was acquired by Towers Watson in 2012. Having worked on Medicare Advantage with a focus on state and public sector employers, I was a steward for our channel partner relationships between consultants that wanted to provide a private Medicare exchange to their clients, including Towers Watson and Willis. I eventually moved from Extend Health to become the exchange practice leader at Willis. Collaborating with Liazon, I developed the Willis private exchange platform. In the process, I kicked the tires on every private exchange in the market in order to create something that would deliver true value to our employer clients and their employees.My education was in health care administration, which provided a terrific springboard for my career. I’ve worked in a range of companies, from start-ups to major national health insurance carriers, and this breadth of experience helped me to develop products and solutions that synched with innovation in the health care space.


My attention and focus is always drawn to what we can do operationally to innovate with technology and engage employees. I’ve always been the change agent. My true passion is looking at what is on the horizon and integrating the very best components of the past, present and the future into one integrated vision. One of my strengths is getting employers to understand how and when change can be beneficial. I believe in identifying various opportunities that can bring clients value, and then helping them get there by painting that picture for them.

Where I see health insurance going


I love the outdoors and hiking

One of the top reasons employers are now turning to private exchanges is the changing workforce.

A digitally savvy younger workforce does not want to access benefits from an antiquated system. They just don’t. No one wants to get into a car and wind down a window or push a button to lock a door. Health exchanges are to benefit delivery what the smartphone has been to the telephone.

The benefits world moves very slowly, especially when it comes to employers who have a very paternalistic approach to employees. But how can we continue to deliver on paper or in a clunky benefit administration system that has to rival the ease with which we can buy cars? The system has to be very sophisticated.


Very proud of my big family

Private exchanges are bringing benefits into the 21st century—with access and choice. Ten years from now, everyone will be using exchanges, because the way it was done yesterday just can’t continue. Once you change technology, there’s no going back. The dial-up phone is gone.

I believe that there will be gradual embracing of all the components that are part and parcel of the technology enhancements exchanges bring.

We all learned how to shop online—no one gave us a training manual. We all figured it out, and our culture changed around the technology, and the technology was very agile and responsive. And that’s what the exchange platform is: It’s a new way of doing things.

To reach me for comment on an article or a presentation, contact Melanie Meharchand, Director of PR and Social Media for Exchange Solutions, Willis Towers Watson.


With the end of the year just around the corner, we are taking a moment to look back at the most popular posts on the OneExchange blog this year.

Most-read topics included benefits administration, telemedicine, disease management programs, and types of benefits being offered, including student loan repayment, workplace perks such as snow days, and changing PTO policies. We also got to know more about exchange innovator Sherri Bockhorst, a managing director of Willis Towers Watson’s group exchange business.

Here are some interesting tidbits from the top 10 posts:

On workplace perks: “New parents no doubt perked up (pun intended) when companies offered such benefits as unlimited parental leave (Netflix) and $4,000 in “baby cash” for the birth of a newborn (Facebook).”

On telemedicine: “The average telemedicine visit costs between $40 and $49…. This compares favorably with a visit to a primary care doctor ($110) or a trip to the emergency room ($865).”

On biosimilars: “The potential benefit [from the FDA approving more biosimilars] is huge… biosimilars could result in over $44 billion in savings on biologics between 2014 and 2024.”

Read on for the complete list of the top 10 blog posts in 2016:

  1. “Panda Days” and Paid Time Off: What Perks Perk Up Employees
  1. Employers Look To Private Medicare Exchanges As Alternative To Group Retiree Health Coverage
  1. Meet Exchange Innovator Sherri Bockhorst
  1. Little Known Rule Allows Some Seniors To Change Medicare Advantage Plans When Plans Drop Their Doctors
  1. League Of California Cities Partners With OneExchange On New Private Exchange Offering
  1. Employers Add Student Loan Repayment To Benefits Offerings To Attract Millennials
  1. Employee Well-being In The Workplace A Priority For Employers In Coming Years
  1. More Private Exchanges Adding Disease Management Programs
  2. Reimbursement Issues Plague Biosimilars
  1. Telemedicine Benefits Remain Underutilized

Incentives are a popular way to get employees to engage with wellness programs. But the carrots and sticks employers can use in wellness programs have changed recently, thanks to final rulings from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on wellness program incentives.

A recent article in Financial Advisor explored the evolution of wellness programs in light of these EEOC rulings, which limit financial incentives to 30% of the cost of an individual’s health plan.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the rulings, wellness programs continue to proliferate. While penalties (sticks) are still used, they are less common than incentives (carrots), according to Jeff Levin-Scherz, north American leader of health management for Willis Towers Watson.

“Relatively few employers use penalties except for tobacco cessation,” Levin-Scherz told Financial Advisor. “Most employers express incentives as a reward rather than a penalty.”

For the complete article in Financial Advisor, click here.

Do fitness wearables in the workplace really work? This was the question posed in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

Even as more employers are offering fitness wearables to their employees, the article pointed out that it remains to be seen how effective they are at helping them achieve better health outcomes or reduce health care costs.

According to Willis Towers Watson employer survey data, presented in the article, 31% of large employers now offer wearable fitness trackers to their employees; another 23% reported considering offering them in the next two years.

In addition to questions about effectiveness, there are also those who have privacy concerns and wonder about the ethics of rewarding employees for wellness program participation or penalizing them for failing to meet wellness goals.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued several rulings recently related to wellness programs and their administration. Fitness tracking devices fall under the guidance of these rulings, and employers are advised to stay up to date on rules to stay compliant.

To read the article in the Chicago Tribune, click here.

In July, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission issued an informal discussion letter in response to requests for clarification of incentive limits for employer-sponsored wellness programs. The request came in the wake of long-awaited final EEOC rulings on employer-sponsored wellness programs, released in May, that placed limits on employer wellness programs, including incentive amounts employers can offer employees to participate in the programs. The final rulings stipulated that incentives could not exceed 30% of the total cost of a major medical plan, but left some questions unanswered, including how employers that offer multiple wellness plans should calculate the maximum incentive limit.

The July letter noted that “the EEOC concluded that where an employer offers more than one group health plan option, but enrollment in a particular [emphasis added] plan is not required to participate in a wellness program, the maximum incentive is based on the total cost of the lowest cost self-only coverage under a major medical group health plan that the employer offers.”

The motivation for employers to encourage participation is in wellness programs is to achieve better health outcomes for employees, which translates to lower health care costs and higher workforce productivity for employers.

Since the way wellness programs are administered and legislation related to wellness continue to evolve, employers should expect additional updated guidelines from the EEOC.
To read the entire informal discussion letter from the EEOC, click here.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced an initiative to dedicate more than $200 million in federal funding to personalized or “precision” medicine. In December of that year he signed into law bipartisan legislation appropriating the funds. And in early March of this year (2016), the White House hosted a Precision Medicine Summit where more than 40 private sector organizations presented commitments they’ve made and ideas they have for accelerating progress in the field.

As part of this effort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the White House announced that it is seeking one million people to participate in a 10-year research effort. Volunteers will be asked to submit their genetic and lifestyle information so government scientists can study it to better understand the causes and cures of some of the most serious diseases affecting Americans. In a recent article in the New York Times NIH Director Francis Collins described it “the largest, most ambitious research project of this sort ever undertaken.”

The target for 2016 is to enroll 79,000 people; the hope is to hit the one million goal by 2019.

For employers, study findings could be used to improve wellness programs and develop better tools for anticipating, preventing, and managing chronic illness among employees. Findings also could be used by HR professionals overseeing health plan design to tailor benefit offerings to better meet the needs of employees who suffer from or are at risk for disease.

To read the complete article in the New York Times, click here.

For more on precision medicine, see our first post on this topic from May of 2015.

Most employers recognize the importance of paid time off (PTO) as a means for employees to recharge and return to work refreshed. In fact, research shows that employees who take time off are more productive than those who stay at work and do not use their PTO.

But do traditional PTO plan designs and administration strategies work? Or are there better alternatives?

These were questions posed in a recent article in Employee Benefit News (EBN) on PTO banks. In contrast to traditional PTO plans, which allocate a set number of days for specific types of PTO such as sick leave, personal days, and other reasons, PTO banks leave the decision of how paid time off is spent to the employees–a move that employers report has resulted in less absenteeism.

However, according to Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader for disability management for Willis Towers Watson, employers considering PTO banks need to take into consideration both national and state regulations related to mandatory paid sick leave when they design their PTO banks. In the EBN article, Reinberg noted there is wide variation from state to state.

In addition to addressing the challenge of complying with regulations, Reinberg recommended three questions employers ask themselves when designing PTO banks to ensure they are meeting the needs of their workforce:

  • What kind of culture do you have? What is your current program like and what is the compelling business case for change?
  • Are you competitive? Are you in sync with your business rivals and your clients?
  • Are your demographics changing? Millennials put a high value on discretionary time off.

For more on PTO banks, read the complete article in EBN.

The 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey of U.S. employers found that a growing number of employers have adopted a broader view of workforce health that includes physical, mental, emotional and financial health. At the same time, findings from a concurrent survey of more than 5,000 U.S. employers, the 2015/16 Willis Towers Watson Global Benefit Attitudes Survey, showed that just 45% of U.S. employees are happy with their current financial situation. Further, 1 in 5 reported that financial problems are negatively affecting their life.

In an article written for BenefitsPro by Steve Nyce, senior economist at Willis Towers Watson, and Carlos Hernandez, vice president of strategic alliances at Acclaris, the authors drew attention to the connection between programs employers offer that support employee physical well-being and those that support financial wellness.

According to Nyce and Hernandez, financial woes disproportionately affect certain segments of the workforce, notably Millennials. Recent graduates with student loans are especially affected. These concerns mean employees are less engaged and less productive.

However, even as employers introduce programs to address these concerns and to enhance employee well-being, the Willis Towers Watson employer survey found that just 50% of employees enroll in them.

What can employers do to help their employees and plan members realize the value available to them through consumer directed health plans (CDHPs) plans and wellness programs?

Nyce and Hernandez identify three key steps to engaging employees in consumer-directed health and wellness offerings. To read the article in BenefitsPro, click here.

Employers are increasingly concerned with ensuring their employees are healthy and productive in the workplace. According to new survey data from Willis Towers Watson, 64% of U.S. employers said that developing a workplace culture supporting employee well-being is a primary strategy to boost health engagement. In layman’s terms, employers believe that employee happiness with the workplace is one key to a healthy workforce.

These are the findings of 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey, and mark a significant shift in employer attitudes. One year ago, just one-third (34%) of employers identified employee well-being as a primary strategy.

The shift is part of an emerging focus on a broader definition of wellness that is leading employers to implement new programs. One example is programs to promote financial health, including new voluntary benefits such as student loan assistance.

Focusing on a more holistic view of employee well-being has benefits both for employees and for the company as a whole, according to Shelly Wolff, senior health care consultant at Willis Towers Watson. Of the findings, Wolff said, “As the well-being of employees and their families is enhanced, employers are better positioned to achieve bottom-line goals, improve benefit cost management and lower absenteeism. What’s more, they’ll also have happier, healthier and more engaged employees.”

Jeff Levin-Scherz, senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, explained in an article for Business Insurance the importance of employers engaging fully in employee wellbeing initiatives. Said Levin-Scherz, “Employers increasingly are understanding that to make a measurable difference in employees’ overall health and productivity, they must drive well-being initiatives deeper into the organization and embed them in employees’ day-to-day work experience.”

For more data employer attitudes towards employee wellness, see the press release on the Willis Towers Watson website.

To read the complete article in Business Insurance, click here.