With all the concern lately about the mental health of students and school staff, school leaders should ensure they are taking full advantage of what can be a great resource in their districts: employee assistance programs, or EAPs.

EAPs are voluntary, work-based programs that offer free, confidential help to employees and their families to address a range of issues, including mental and emotional well-being, stress, family issues, and substance abuse. 

I became familiar with the EAP in my district after a tragic shooting at Aztec High School in Aztec, NM, in December 2017. Not surprisingly, our teachers and staff were struggling following the shooting. But in the immediate aftermath, they received a lot of support. The state department of education, the governor’s office, and the National Association of School Psychologists all sent in teams to help staff cope through the rest of the school year. When we reopened the next school year, we still had some of those resources, but as we got farther away from the actual event, the emergency funding naturally decreased. But that doesn’t mean staff members weren’t still dealing with their own fears and anxiety.

It became clear to our human resources department and our new mental health coordinator that some staff had continuing emotional health needs. We already had an EAP in place, like most districts, but it was small, and it tended to be focused on staff who manifested an obvious need because their performance on the job had come to the attention of district leaders. Then, when the pandemic hit, we realized even more that we needed ways to support the emotional health needs of staff.

Privacy Is Paramount

Our district has worked closely with our EAP vendor, The Solutions Group, to make sure staff know this is a good system that’s easy to access and that can connect them to valuable resources. We’ve moved past the idea that it’s only for employees who are struggling, and we’ve focused on communicating to staff about the range of available services. We let them know that whatever they are dealing with, the employer doesn’t need to know the details of why they are seeking help.

About once a quarter, our district sends out a reminder to staff about how to access services and just remind them it’s there. We also focus on any new services and highlight some of the available resources. It seems to be functioning well in our district, given the ever-changing nature of what staff needs.

One of the things our EAP does well is bridge the gap between the short-term support that staff is receiving and what they might need on a more permanent basis. For example, that might involve finding a local therapist for the staff member to work with more long term. I should mention that teletherapy has been an important and growing part of helping meet the needs of staff because those demands can easily outstrip the number of therapists available locally for face-to-face sessions.

Since the EAP is confidential, I don’t know the specifics of why staff members are accessing it, but I do hear positive feedback. I had one staff member at my school who was clearly grappling with anxiety and other issues that were starting to affect his job performance. He was a friend and person I cared about, so I told him that even though I knew he probably wasn’t inclined to seek help, I gave him the EAP flyer. I emphasized that he didn’t need to consult with HR about it and he didn’t even need to tell me, but it might be helpful. He was very receptive and did follow up with the program. Even though it was awkward at first, he said, therapy sessions offered through the program helped him, and he was looking for a more permanent local therapist.

I would encourage principals to look into the EAP in their districts, and if it’s not being used much, start asking questions about what services are available, how easy it is for employees to access them, and what you can do with your district to make sure employees know they can turn to them for confidential help without having to inform their supervisor. Districts should make these programs known and accessible, and they can also help staff understand how the program works and communicate regularly about what’s available.

As we’ve come through more than two years of this public health crisis, I like to say that COVID-19 has really ripped the lid off trauma. It’s made us much more aware of the adverse emotional experiences that are affecting our staff every day. I can only imagine that moving forward, districts are going to need to realize that EAPs are a crucial component of employee mental health. 

Warman Hall, former principal of Aztec High School in Aztec, NM, is the director of federal programs for the Aztec Municipal Schools.