Why EAPs are not sufficient for bereavement care

4 min read

After a loved one passes away, families must deal with much more than their grief. After the initial shock of the loss, they’ll need to face a wide variety of responsibilities: everything from settling debts and paying taxes to resolving inheritance issues. 

Working with probate courts to settle your loved one’s affairs is often a long process, and even straightforward tasks like shutting down a loved one’s accounts and clearing out the contents of their home can be time-consuming.

In fact, settling a loved one’s affairs amounts to a part-time job that lasts for more than a year, on average. 

Employees who are carrying this burden need real support—much more than employee assistance programs, or EAPs, are designed to offer. 

When EAPs became popular with employers starting in the 1970s, they were a way to provide crisis support for mental health, substance abuse, and family emergencies. 

Since EAPs were originally designed to help people with issues like mental health or substance abuse, an EAP may seem sufficient to support employees who are navigating the challenges of loss. But that belief is misguided at best, and at worst, can lead to productivity losses, burnout, and turnover—for the employee as well as their coworkers. 

An EAP may be a good thing to have in an emergency, but loss involves much more than the initial emergency. 

Embarking on a long journey, unprepared 

Think of the aftermath of loss as a journey through unfamiliar territory, like a hike in which you must clear a new path and reach a new destination by the end of each day. 

You need tools to meet the challenges you encounter on the path and you’ll need fuel to sustain you for a long trip. Moreover, when surprises come up and setbacks happen, there’s nothing like an expert guide who knows the terrain. 

Families facing bureaucratic, financial, and legal challenges at one of the most difficult moments in their lives need more holistic support than an EAP can provide. (Going back to the hiking metaphor, EAPs are like a supply of trail mix that’ll help you in a pinch but isn’t enough to sustain you for long.)

This is especially true for families who are not knowledgeable about their loved one’s assets and debts, or about probate, the legal process of transferring assets to those who inherit them. 

For instance, over 80% of Americans die without a will, but most families have no idea how to settle a loved one’s affairs with no will. Though this situation affects 4 out of 5 bereaved families, reliable support is hard to come by, beyond retaining the services of a lawyer—an expensive option, in terms of money and time.

Families facing bureaucratic, financial, and legal challenges at one of the most difficult moments in their lives need more holistic support than an EAP can provide.

Another common issue for bereaved families is their vulnerability. Because our society does not talk openly about death, many businesses associated with death and dying operate without intense scrutiny. 

The result can be disjointed, time-consuming processes, even to complete a simple task like canceling a gym membership. At worst, bereaved families can face inflated prices and fees, and less-than-ethical practices.

An EAP is a stopgap, not a solution

Navigating loss on this scale is no job for an EAP. Unfortunately, employees are expected to do it all on their own, in addition to their full-time job.

At the same time, grief itself brings mental and physical challenges: Cognitive decline and even physical pain can accompany the more familiar symptoms of sleep changes, appetite changes, depressed mood, and anxiety. 

For employees who are suffering deeply, dealing with an EAP itself can cause additional stress. Many EAPs are struggling with provider shortages, so appointments can be hard to come by. In addition, quality of care can be inconsistent and access is an issue.

Families need holistic care to navigate loss

Everyone grieves differently, and everyone deals with the aftermath of loss differently. 

And since an EAP is designed to be a one-size-fits-all solution for multiple issues that can affect an employee, it is a poor fit for anyone dealing with the numerous issues and challenges that come with loss. 

But when employees are not supported in the aftermath of loss, there are some common results: employees who are overwhelmed and distracted from work, lower productivity, lower morale, and ultimately burnout and turnover.

Holistic care for bereaved families must meet them where they are to address their grief as well as the financial and administrative burden they are carrying. And it must be there for them for weeks, months, and even more than a year.