Breaking the stigma: EAPs as a tool for women’s mental wellbeing in the workplace

Gary Feldman
27 September 2023
7 min read

When it comes to women’s mental health in the workplace, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be a valuable resource for the unique mental health challenges facing women due to societal expectations, work-related stressors and personal responsibilities. As a corporate, it is important to recognise and be sensitive to the specific mental health needs of your female workforce.

Deloitte’s Women @ Work: A Global Outlook survey (2023) revealed that:

  • More than half (56%) of women say their mental health is a concern.
  • Only 37% rate their ability to switch off from work as “good”.
  • Just over half (54%) of women say their physical health is good – a substantial decline from 65% in 2022.
  • Less than half of respondents (42%) rate their work/life balance as good or extremely good.
  • 43% of respondents say they feel judged by the hours they are present or online versus the quality of their work.

Investing in an EAP can help break the stigma surrounding mental health, provide support and foster a healthier work environment for women. We Shed light on how EAPs can foster gender-inclusive support in the workplace and provide strategies that corporates can use to destigmatise mental health, boost productivity and workplace morale.

The mental health stigma facing women

According to the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University USA, women are more prone (than men) to feel stigmatised for getting help with mental health issues. Their research revealed that “Women prefer to rely on the opinions of the outside world for their self-esteem much more than men do. As a result, they often avoid having their mental illness treated because they want to prevent others from thinking less of them, which would cause them to think less of themselves.” This and other research highlight the fact that societal expectations and gender roles have an effect on women's mental wellbeing and reinforce a destructive stigma that needs to be deconstructed. Employers who implement EAPs in the workplace play an important role in destigmatising mental health by reducing the friction women face when they seek appropriate help.

Mental health challenges women face in the workplace

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) estimates that approximately one in six South Africans have mental health issues. As a result of natural hormonal fluctuations, women are particularly susceptible to developing depression and anxiety. Furthermore, many women experience postpartum depression shortly after giving birth. Besides facing workplace discrimination due to the gender pay gap and the lack of opportunities in leadership positions, women also face burnout as they try to manage their careers and their household responsibilities. This is also evident in Deloitte’s Women @ Work report for 2022 where 40% of South African women said they were experiencing burnout, and 51% said their stress levels were higher than the previous year.

What is an employee assistance programme?

The Employee Assistance Programme Association of South Africa (EAPA-SA) defines an EAP as “A voluntary work-based intervention programme offered by employers as an employee benefit. The aim of the programme is to support employees who are experiencing life issues that may impact their psycho-social functioning and productivity in the workplace, which may result in absenteeism and declining presenteeism amongst other workplace issues.” EAPs are a corporate value add. By implementing an EAP, the employer is effectively showing employees that their well-being is important to the business because the cost of the programme is absorbed by the business.

Tailoring EAPs to address women's mental health

Most EAPs offer a wide variety of services and support. Employers usually select a packaged deal of services fit for their unique environment. Some of the common services range from psychological support for personal challenges, workplace stress and burnout, relational issues and conflict in the workplace, eldercare, childcare, parenting problems, harassment, substance abuse, bereavement, separation and divorce, work-life balance, legal support, financial coaching, general health and wellness, disabilities and counselling for crisis situations at home or at work – to name only a few. The mental health of women specifically is often overlooked when structuring these packages, which is why it is important to think about customising EAPs to cater to their unique needs by considering factors like reproductive health, maternity support and career advancement challenges.

One of the key features of all EAPs is confidentiality. Standard 12 of the Standards for Employee Assistance Programmes in South Africa says that “Confidentiality is a cornerstone of the profession, consistent with all the professional standards, ethics, and legal requirements that regulate the management of information.” If a female worker is struggling with personal issues, she may be more comfortable accessing support if she knows the intervention is strictly confidential, which will also greatly assist in destigmatising mental health for women in the workplace.

The benefits of implementing an EAP

Depending on the services selected for an EAP, these are five of the more common benefits an employer can expect to see emerging over time:

  • Increased productivity: when employees have resources and support during difficult times, mental health issues can be dealt with quickly and professionally instead of leaving them to fester over time. This leads to increased productivity.
  • Decreased absenteeism and increased presenteeism: both absenteeism and presenteeism cost companies in South Africa and the rest of the world billions every year. EAPs have shown remarkable success in decreasing the days employees take off sick, and improving the quality of work through presenteeism.
  • Improved employee retention: when an employee feels that their employer cares about their holistic well-being, they are more likely to stay loyal to their employer and go above and beyond their regular duties and responsibilities.
  • Preventative services avoid potential issues: for example, financial coaching and career counselling can prevent employees from making decisions that could set them back in life and affect their mental well-being.
  • Cost savings: if employees use the EAP effectively, they will be more productive and present in the office, which will ultimately boost the growth of the business. On the other hand, EAPs are relatively cost effective considering the long-term return on investment when comparing cost per employee versus the business growth as a result of having a healthy and happy workforce.

When it comes to women in the workplace and mental health, EAPs can provide timely interventions that not only deal with mental health but also prevent mental health issues from escalating.

Promoting EAP usage to break the stigma

Employees often avoid using EAPs because they think their colleagues will judge them or label them. Some even fear that they will be discriminated against by their employer, their manager or their co-workers. Research has also shown that some employees are sceptical when it comes to confidentiality – as mentioned, many employees don’t trust that their mental health or personal issues will be kept strictly confidential. In essence, they fear the stigma and being seen as weak or even as a failure. To overcome this stigma, you need to understand the common myths and misconceptions that may influence your employees' perceptions and attitudes towards EAPs. For example, some employees may think that EAPs are only for people with serious problems, that using EAPs are a sign of weakness or failure, or that using EAPs will negatively impact their career prospects.

To promote EAPs in the workplace for both men and women, you can consider these four strategies:

  • Regularly raise awareness: communicate the services offered regularly to keep building awareness. It should be an onboarding element with ongoing communication highlighting various services offered to the female workforce in particular.
  • Highlight confidentiality: in every communication, the confidentiality aspect of the services should be highlighted to reinforce a supportive offering that can be trusted. Providing reports of how many people have used the EAP services may encourage more employees to follow suit.
  • Create a culture that supports women’s mental health:employers should build a supportive environment for women by highlighting specific female-related services that are offered. It should form part of the company culture and identity.
  • Remind employees that the EAP services are free of charge: there is often a misconception that these services come at a cost to the employees. Make sure employees understand that the employer covers the costs.

It is important to foster a supportive and inclusive workplace culture for women, and in fact all employees. However, there is a vast amount of evidence that proves that teams and businesses that embrace gender diversity see improved innovation and creativity through diversity of opinion, which ultimately results in a more profitable business. The latest McKinsey report entitled ‘Diversity Wins’ highlights that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies in the fourth quartile. Proof that taking care of our women in the workplace is, quite simply, good for business.

T&Cs apply. NMG Consultants and Actuaries (Pty) LTD is an authorised financial services provider FSP 12968


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