Behavioral Health Among Employers’ Top Priorities in 2021: Mercer Survey


75% of large employers have called employees’ behavioral health a priority.

Employee wellness and associated benefits have undergone a radical transformation since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Access to telemedicine replaced gym memberships, and increased health insurance coverage replaced other discounts. Now, as we approach 2021, the annual Mercer National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020Opens a new window finds that the employers’ top three well-being priorities include behavioral health, diabetes management, and financial wellness.

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Behavioral Health Comes To the Fore

After the pandemic has intensified employee health issues such as financial stress, work-life balance struggles, anxiety, and depression, Mercer’s analysis finds that fewer employees have been receiving behavioral health treatments.

Now, in a survey of 1,812 public and private employers in the U.S. in 2020, 75% of large employers (more than 500 employees) have prioritized employees’ behavioral health in their well-being priorities in the coming year.

In 2020, the cost of employee health benefits did not increase significantly. It rose at an average 3.4%, which according to Mercer’s survey analysis, is because of lower utilization of employee benefits, which has saved them significant costs.

This has put employers in a position to improve the support they provide to employees.

“The need to minimize exposure to the virus and ease the strain on overloaded health facilities caused many people to forgo care this past year, which translated to slower cost growth in 2020. Heading into 2021, that’s allowed employers to avoid cost management tactics like shifting cost to employees,” saidOpens a new window Tracy Watts, a senior consultant at Mercer. “Instead, we’re seeing many focus on supporting employees with additional resources to help keep them engaged, productive and healthy during these tough times.”

Notably, an October report by MercerOpens a new window found that employee healthcare costs would rise by 4.4% in 2021.

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The Changing Face of Employee Benefits

Employee well-being has emerged as a major challenge for employers this year. Now with many moving to a hybrid or work-from-anywhere model, well-being will have to be the top priority. A survey of 13,271 U.K. employees earlier this year found that the pandemic had impacted the mental health of 73% of employees.

In a PayFit studyOpens a new window of 2,002 U.K. workers, 42% of those interviewed said they would like to experience less stress in the coming year. Caroline Leroy, chief people and fulfillment officer at PayFit, said: “Whether it is job security, increased pressure, long hours, or challenges relating to remote working, employees’ mental health should be a top priority for business leaders in 2021.”

One way to reduce employee stress and improve overall well-being is to ease their financial stress, which has emerged as the number three priority for employers in the Mercer survey. In 2020, we’ve seen several employers take a step in this direction. For instance, in April 2020, Domino’s partneredOpens a new window with a mobile financial management tool for employees to ensure they received same-day access to their wages, tips, and mileage payments.

In June 2020, Gartner foundOpens a new window that two-thirds of organizations had introduced new wellness benefits offerings to support employees’ mental and emotional well-being.

Employers believe that prioritizing employee well-being will improve the employer brand. “At a time when employees have never been less visible in a physical sense, and with elevated levels of stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, well-being strategies that work for people at an individual group need to sit atop the business priority list. The consequences of not doing so are low performance and productivity, along with the potential for mass attrition when the economy recovers and the war for talent returns. This is why well-being must feature as an integral – and authentic – part of the employer brand,” says Nikolaos Lygkonis, founder and CEO of PeopleGoal, a holistic HR App Store for SMEs.

The study to next look forward to is the one that will reveal how much these benefits are genuinely helping employees.