The World of EAP  - Journal of Employee Assistance Vol. 48 no. 1 - 1st Quarter 2018
EAP in the Philippines – On the Cusp of Change

By John Maynard, PhD, CEAP


To understand the people and culture of the Philippines, one has to start with the underlying cultural concept of bayanihan. In many rural areas, even today, when a family needs to move from one location from another, the whole community assists with the move, not only carrying the personal belongings, but also in many cases, the family’s traditional house made of indigenous materials. The men of the community lift the house on long bamboo poles and move it to the new site. Afterward, the family serves food to the volunteers as the community celebrates and socializes.

Even in cases when houses cannot be physically carried, the bayanihan tradition of helping one another, especially in times of need, without expecting anything in return persists. Filipino values are still rooted strongly in mutual support and personal connections based on family, friends, religion, and even commercial relationships. Appropriately leveraging and supplementing this ancient tradition of pitching in to help neighbors and community is key to the future success and growth of EAPs in the Philippines.

Unique Blend of East and West
The unique history of the Philippines has produced a complex culture that combines the traditional bayanihan spirit with more Western beliefs and attitudes. The first European to arrive was Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Although Magellan was Portuguese, he was leading a Spanish expedition, so he claimed the Philippines for Spain.  

Magellan was killed by a local chief who fought to prevent the Christianization of the native population. Ultimately, most of the natives converted to Catholicism, and the Philippines remained a Spanish colony for 377 years until 1899, when it was ceded by Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War. The country was then a US territory for 49 years, until it was granted independence in 1946.

Today, the Republic of the Philippines is a rapidly emerging market with an economy transitioning from one primarily based on agriculture to being focused more on services and manufacturing. With a population of 103 million people, it is the eighth-most-populated country in Asia and the twelfth-most populous in the world. Most Filipinos live on just 11 of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the country.

Nearly 85% of Filipinos identify themselves as Roman Catholic, making the Philippines the third-largest Catholic nation in the world. Although the Philippine culture is quite Hispanic and Westernized on the surface, underlying and still influential indigenous attitudes and ways of thinking, including bayanihan, continue to guide Filipino behavior.

Health and Mental Health Care
Perhaps partly due to the strong cultural value of reliance on family, community, and church, healthcare and mental healthcare expenditures in the Philippines are relatively low. In 2014, total healthcare expenditures were below the World Health Organization’s minimum target of 5% of GDP, compared to a world average of 9.9%. Of the healthcare total, only 5% is spent on mental health-related care, and much of that goes to inpatient services.

This state of affairs may be on the brink of significant change. The Philippine Mental Health Act approved in 2017 proposes a national mental health policy focused on integrating comprehensive mental health services into the national healthcare program. The intent is to promote mental health services to the population and protect the rights of those who use mental health services.

The Mental Health Act also includes a clause for the promotion and provision of mental health services in the workplace. Specifically, it dictates that, “Employers shall develop appropriate policies and programs on mental health in the workplace designed to: raise awareness on mental health issues; … identify and provide support for individuals at risk; and facilitate access of individuals … to treatment and psychosocial support.”  

EAPs Ready to Blossom
Initiated by the needs of large multinational companies, the first Philippine-based EAPs were introduced in 2005. Growth in the EAP market has been slow and still consists largely of services to multinational corporations, sometimes contracted directly between local EAP vendors and the corporations, and sometimes subcontracted through global EAP firms.

Jean Lim, the only CEAP based in the Philippines, is optimistic that the new 2017 Mental Health law will raise awareness of mental health issues and EAPs among corporate and business leaders, as well as among the general employee population. This should accelerate the growth of EAPs, especially among indigenous companies.

Another factor adding to the growing visibility of EAPs in 2017 was the first annual conference of the Asia-Pacific Employee Assistance Roundtable (APEAR) ever held in the Philippines. According to Ms. Lim, government representatives invited to speak at APEAR admitted that the conference was their first awareness and exposure to EAPs.

Challenges and Opportunities
Stemming from the strong bayanihan tradition, the cultural norm in the Philippines has long been for Filipino employees to turn to family or friends for help when they experience difficulties. Turning to outside counseling can represent a violation of that norm, so utilization of services like EAP has been very low. Company leaders, of course, have had this same philosophy, making EAP a hard sell with local firms.

In recent years, however, the difficult economy and low wages have led more and more Filipinos to go overseas to work so they can send money home to their families. In fact, the Philippines is a leading source of overseas workers for many higher-wage countries. Unfortunately, the high number of overseas workers also has weakened family and social relationships, making the bayanihan tradition more difficult to sustain. As the pace of work increases, employees today are under more stress, with fewer traditional resources for getting support. Given their growing visibility in the marketplace, EAPs may be able to assist in filling this gap in needed services.

With the market for EAP growing, one of the greatest challenges for EA firms in the Philippines is finding adequately trained staff and affiliates, especially in the provinces where many of the large business process outsourcing (BPO) companies have facilities. Similarly, qualified referral resources for counseling or treatment needs beyond the scope of the EAP are few and far between.

As is the case in many countries, the rapid changes in the Philippines are creating both difficult challenges and huge opportunities for EAPs. Our challenge as a profession is to find innovative solutions tailored to the local culture while protecting the integrity and quality of EAP core technology.

Let’s Continue the Discussion
My thanks to Jean Lim, CEAP, Managing Director of PowerVision EAP Inc., and Phillippa Keys, Executive Director of In Touch Community Services, for taking the time to meet with me as I was preparing this column. Let’s continue the discussion of EAP in the Philippines and elsewhere around the world! If you have comments about this article or ideas for other countries we should explore in future issues, please send them in. You’re welcome to contact me directly anytime or to post your feedback, questions, or suggestions on EAPA’s LinkedIn group.

Dr. John Maynard served as CEO of EAPA from 2004 through 2015. Prior to that, he was President of SPIRE Health Consultants, Inc., a global consulting firm specializing in EA strategic planning, program design, and quality improvement. In both roles, he had the opportunity to observe, meet, and exchange ideas with EA professionals in countries around the world. He currently accepts speaking engagements and consulting projects where he can make a positive difference. He can be reached at johnmaynard@spirehealth.com.