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September 15, 2021

What 142 employers say about mental health benefits

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    Surveys from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and Mercer highlight which health benefits have become the most important for employees, Tara Bannow reports for Modern Healthcare—as well as the one non-health related benefit that topped one survey's findings.

    Our take: Three strategies for health care workplaces to build baseline emotional support

    Mental health benefits key for both employers and employees, surveys find

    According to Bannow, two new surveys from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and Mercer suggest the Covid-19 pandemic has made comprehensive, affordable mental health benefits an important area of focus for both employers and employees.

    The National Alliance survey was conducted in August among 142 employers with at least 1,000 employees each and found that mental health and substance use treatment access and quality tied as the top focus areas for employers' health care strategies over the next one to two years.

    According to Michael Thompson, CEO of the National Alliance, employees' mental health directly impacts their productivity and their ability to perform well at work.

    "Employers have seen the impact of the deterioration of mental health during the pandemic and have actually seen it manifest in their workforce," he said. "With that in mind, I think they are anxious to provide necessary support and access for employees who do have concerns, issues with their mental health."

    Separately, Mercer surveyed 14,000 employees in 13 countries—including 2,000 employees in the United States—between March and April. The survey asked employees about their levels of stress, the benefits they felt were important, and the support they received from their employers.

    In the survey, more than half of U.S. employees said they had some level of stress over the last year, and almost 25% said they experienced mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. In addition, 20% said they are financially worse off now than they were before the pandemic, and a similar amount said they feel less physically healthy.

    Of all the employees Mercer surveyed, half said that programs reducing the cost of mental health treatment are "highly or extremely valuable." Mercer also found that 45% of employees who believed that they received good support from their employers during the pandemic said they would be less likely to leave their jobs because of the support offered.

    Notably, Mercer's findings indicate that benefits for mental and physical health are important to employees, but flexible work arrangements ranked higher than both.

    Kate Brown, who leads Mercer's Center for Health Innovation, said that the survey's findings—while not surprising—validate the work many employers have done over the past 18 months to support their employees.

    "It's creating a more supportive culture for your people," she said. "That's what proved to be so important."

    Other findings from the surveys

    Regarding benefit plans, the National Alliance found that many employers cited health care affordability as a major issue going forward. Specifically, 80% cited drug prices and 73% cited hospital prices as significant threats to affordability.

    The National Alliance also found that in addition to mental health benefits, a vast majority (92%) of employers indicated "centers of excellence" as a leading area of focus in their future health care strategies. This will allow health plans to direct members to a specific provider for certain "big-ticket" procedures, such as joint replacements, Bannow reports.

    According to Thompson, this focus on centers of excellence indicates that employers are moving toward a more "selective and directive [health care delivery approach] for employees."

    Employees also have a lot of trust in their employers when it comes to health information, Bannow reports. In fact, employees who answered the Mercer survey listed employers as their third most trusted source of health information—higher than private insurers, online businesses, and the government.

    "That's [an] interesting finding 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 employers have to make a little bit easier." (Bannow, Modern Healthcare, 9/13)

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