The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the role of comprehensive and affordable mental health benefits as a retention strategy for employers, according to a pair of surveys released Monday.
New investigations from the National Alliance of Healthcare Buyers Coalitions and Mercer make the case for integrating quality mental health coverage into employee benefit plans. The findings, which cover hundreds of thousands of employees, indicate that mental health is a priority area for employers when designing benefits and for employees when considering career options.
Employees’ mental health has a direct impact on their productivity or their ability to perform at their best at work, said Michael Thompson, CEO of the National Alliance, the umbrella organization for employer coalitions at the national scale. His group members represent public and private employers who spend more than $300 billion a year on health care for more than 45 million Americans.
The National Alliance conducted an online survey in August of 142 employers with at least 1,000 employees. Access and quality of mental health and addictions are key areas of focus for health care strategies over the next two years.
“Employers have seen the impact of deteriorating mental health during the pandemic and have actually seen it play out in their workforce,” Thompson said. “With that in mind, I think they are eager to provide the necessary support and access to employees who have concerns, mental health issues.”
Mercer found that more than half of U.S. employees reported some level of stress in the past year, and nearly a quarter said they had experienced mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. A fifth said they were financially worse off than before the pandemic, and almost the same proportion felt less physically healthy. Mercer conducted its survey of 14,000 employees in 13 countries, including 2,000 in the United States, between March and April.
Half of employees surveyed by Mercer said programs that reduce the cost of mental health treatment are very or extremely valuable. The finding isn’t surprising, but it validates the work done by employers over the past 18 months, said Kate Brown, who directs Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation.
Mercer also found that 45% of employees who felt they received good support from their employer during the pandemic also said they were less likely to leave their jobs as a result.
Mercer’s findings show that while mental and physical health benefits are important for employees, flexible work hours are even more important, Brown said.
“It creates a more supportive culture for your people,” he added. “That’s what turned out to be so important.”
The National Alliance survey found that employers have become somewhat more open to mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees amid rising cases fueled by the delta variant. In a March survey, just 8% of employers said they would make COVID vaccines mandatory for all workers. This figure rose to 37% in August.
The reason it is not higher is that employers have economic difficulties in finding workers. Anything that could potentially cause people to leave is a concern, Thompson said.
President Joe Biden’s expansive new rule requiring employers with more than 100 workers to get vaccinated or tested for the virus every week changes the dynamic and, frankly, makes it easier for employers to go in the direction they were already going. , Thompson said.
Many employers wanted to roll out vaccination mandates but wanted to avoid alienating workers, he added. Biden’s tenure allows them to avoid that perception.
“There are certainly employers who will see this new regulation as a cover for a strategy that is more difficult to implement independently, especially independently of their competitors,” he said. “It will create a level playing field for all employees over the age of 100 with some form of tenure. It will make it more viable for many employers to do so.”
The percentage of employers anticipating a return to a stabilized business environment by the end of 2021 has fallen from 65% to 57% in the past six months, the National Alliance found.
Employers also cited issues with the affordability of their benefit plans as a big problem going forward, with 80% citing drug prices as a significant threat and 73% citing hospital prices as a significant threat.
Centers of Excellence tied as the top area of focus for corporate health strategies in the coming years, with 92% of respondents selecting it. This is where health plans refer members to a specific provider for specific expensive procedures, like joint replacements.
Thompson said this aligns with the recent movement from a hands-off approach to employer-based health care delivery to a more “selective and directive for employees.”
Employees who responded to Mercer’s survey also noted that their employers are their third most trusted source of health information, ahead of private medical insurers, online retailers and even the government.
“It’s an interesting find if I’m in an HR seat,” Brown said. “I really have a high level of trust from my employees. I think that makes some of the choices that employers have to make a little bit easier.”