Pandemic & Planning

2021 Emerging From The Pandemic

In the shadow Of 2020, U.S. businesses are contemplating a new normal

Excerpts from a breakthrough survey from Willis Towers Watson measures the impact of COVID on the overall wellbeing of business and its participants, especially with behavioral health issues. Read the full report here.

Employers are preparing benefits plans for a ‘new normal’ and hybrid workforce and are highly focused on addressing behavioral health issues.

Research findings are based on responses from 494 organizations in the U.S. employing 6.4 million employees. The survey fielded January 5 to 20, 2021. Additionally, the sections under “Highlights and trends” include related findings from our employee-based research, the 2020 Global Benefits Attitude Employers are preparing benefits plans for a ‘new normal’ and hybrid workforce and are highly focused on addressing behavioral health issues.

Health Care Costs, COVID-19 Vaccines & Behavioral Health Challenges Are Top Of Mind

Our Emerging From the Pandemic Survey, which fielded in January 2021, assessed employers’ key program priorities and explored opportunities to improve the health and wellbeing of their workforces.

Following a year that saw reduced health care utilization, over 90% of employers report their medical and pharmacy plan costs were at or under budget in 2020. Nevertheless, employers expect 2021 health care costs to rise 4.2% above last year’s budget before plan changes, well above the rate of inflation.

Over half of employers are planning or considering taking action to improve access to the COVID-19 vaccines via onsite clinics (55%) and through vendor solutions (65%). Very few employers have established policies requiring employee vaccinations, but many are planning or considering mandating vaccines to return to work in person (45%) or as a condition of employment (34%). Regarding testing for COVID-19, roughly a quarter of employers (24%) that test their employees at the workplace do so on a regular basis.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, employers’ top priority continues to be communicating the benefits and wellbeing programs that may be useful to employees. Additionally, employers are increasing their focus on wellbeing, in particular through mental health services, and tools or programs to improve the physical wellbeing of employees.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, employers’ top priority continues to be communicating the benefits and wellbeing programs that may be useful to employees...

Focus On Behavioral Health

Employers’ biggest wellbeing challenges are rising stress and burnout, and higher mental-health-related claims. Increased caregiving demands (67%) and decreased social connections (61%) are the leading drivers of mental health issues. Yet only one in four employers believe their programs and policies to support employees with caregiving responsibilities are effective. Moreover, improving social connections will remain a challenge as nearly two in five employees are expected to be working remotely at the end of 2021, which, according to our research, makes employees more likely to feel disconnected from their teams or organizations.

In response, employers are focusing on behavioral health, with nearly all employers (94%) offering tele-behavioral health services and over two-thirds (67%) providing a digital platform for mental health services. They are also prioritizing increased communication to boost engagement in existing behavioral health programs over the next three years. In addition, organizations are making changes to the features of paid time off (PTO) or vacation/sick day benefits in an effort to promote emotional wellbeing. Half have already implemented these types of changes.

Key priorities over next six months:

  • Over two-thirds of employers (68%) indicate communication of benefits and wellbeing programs is their most important benefit priority, a finding consistent with surveys conducted in April and June 2020
  • Employers are increasing their focus on different aspects of wellbeing
  • Roughly two-fifths of employers (62%) are boosting mental health services and stress/resilience management, up almost 20 percentage points over April 2020
  • 27% are offering tools or programs to improve the physical wellbeing of employees, more than double the 12% that were providing these tools in April 2020
  • The number of employers focused on improving employees’ social connections has doubled from 7% in April 2020 to 14% in January 2021
  • The vast majority of employers (82%) say COVID-19 will continue to have negative impacts on employee wellbeing over the next six months
  • Developing a strategy for benefits in a post-COVID-19 environment is a key priority for roughly a third of employers, up from 15% in June and 18% in April 2020

How Are Employers Supporting Employees With Behavioral Health Challenges?

Employers are providing a range of services, including:

  • Tele-behavioral health services (94%)
  • Crisis intervention support (83%)
  • Tele-mental health support (e.g., virtual coaching) (83%)
  • Mental health digital platform (67%)
  • Nearly half of employers (46%) offer mobile apps to reduce stress and increase resiliency. Employers expect employee use of tools to address mental health needs will increase substantially over the next 12 months.

How Do Employers Assess The Effectiveness Of Their Efforts In Behavioral Health?

  • Approximately three in five employers agree that their behavioral health programs help members find timely and effective treatment (60%) and provide members with excellent access to care (57%).
  • However, only one in five indicate their behavioral health program helps to decrease disability claims.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are falling short. While most employers (96%) offer EAPs and 39% made enhancements to their program in 2020, employers are not particularly satisfied with their EAPs’ performance. EAPs earned a net promoter score of 5.

Read the complete survey here.