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Benefits key to alleviating employees’ pandemic stress

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The majority of employees who said they received good or very good support from their employers said their employer cared about their health and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing into sharp focus the impact that employers can have on their workers’ health and productivity through benefits policies, a new survey has found.

Mercer’s “Health on Demand” survey asked workers about their employer’s policies during a time of crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic. And the researchers found that employees are very concerned about the pandemic and the economic downturn that came with it.

Related: Stress, bad decisions shoot up in 2021

“Survey results confirm that the pandemic has had a material impact on the mental, physical, and financial health of employees,” Mercer said in a statement. “Over half of US employees feel some level of stress in the last year; nearly a fourth of US employees say they experienced mental health issues such as depression or anxiety; a fifth are financially worse off; and nearly a fifth feel less physically healthy or fit. Low-wage earners were more likely to experience each of these negative impacts – and less likely to feel supported by their employers during the pandemic.”

Employees supported by employers are happier, more productive

The survey found that workers who feel they have good benefits were more engaged in their work and more confident about their ability to weather the pandemic. For example, 62% of employees who said they received good or very good support from their employers said their employer cared about their health and well-being. In addition, a strong majority of that group (77%) said they felt energized at work. In contrast, those who reported receiving poor or fair support during the pandemic felt their employer cared about them at much lower levels (19%) and were less likely to feel energized at work (51%).

The report also found that those with access to more benefits said they were less likely to move elsewhere (59% compared to 24% of those offered the fewest benefits). Employees who had access to 10 or more benefits were more likely to say they were confident in their ability to afford health care (92%) than those with 1-5 benefits (76%) or zero benefits (65%).

Survey outlines demand for virtual care, mental health options

The report noted that the use of virtual care (telehealth) increased significantly during the pandemic, and that the workers who tried it said they are likely to continue to use virtual care options. According to the survey, 20% of respondents said they used telehealth for the first time during the pandemic, and 23% of respondents said they increased their use of telehealth services. Of those who tried telehealth for the first time, 73% said they plan to continue using such services.

The Mercer report also said that employers are increasingly focusing on mental health as an area to increase benefits. In the survey, 49% of U.S.-based respondents said programs that lower the cost of mental health care are highly or extremely valuable. In addition to cost, access is an issue: 40% of employees surveyed said they found it hard to access quality mental health care. Among low-income workers, that number rose to 47%.

The report concluded by suggesting actions that employers could take to improve their benefits offerings. This included getting input from employees about unmet needs, staying open to benefits that may only affect a minority of employees (since even these benefits can add value and signal a company’s overall support for workers), and consider strategies such as voluntary benefits and defined contribution products.

With the pandemic still having a strong impact on the physical and economic health of Americans, the survey suggests that employers will need to continue to focus on attracting and retaining employees through an expansive approach to benefits.

“There is nothing more important to the health of a business than the health of its people and the communities in which that business operates,” said Martine Ferland, president and CEO of Mercer. “COVID-19 challenged our global health care system, but the ability of employers to have a positive impact on employee health and resiliency is one of the most important findings from our 2021 Health on Demand survey.”