The pandemic has demonstrated, more than ever before, that companies who want to attract and retain the best talent should ensure that their benefits offerings include a diverse set of mental health supports. That’s one of the key findings from Mercer’s 2021 Health on Demand report, which surveyed more than 14,000 employees in 13 countries about their feelings on work, benefits, and their employers in the wake of COVID-19. The results emphasize the urgency of dealing with mental health issues—and outline an opportunity to focus on resources that can improve the emotional well-being of employees.
Our findings clearly show what many of us have been experiencing firsthand. The pandemic didn’t just affect physical health—it spawned a wave of anxiety, loneliness, and heartbreak that countless people are still processing. Just about one in five employees (17%) worldwide describe themselves as highly or extremely stressed daily, with employees in the U.S. (25%) and Mexico (24%) reporting being the most stressed. One in five say they feel more lonely or isolated than before. One in ten say they lost a family member or close friend to COVID-19.
Some groups in particular struggled during the pandemic. Women, single parents, low-paid workers, and LGBTQ+ employees report above-average stress levels and are more likely to feel loneliness or isolation.
But even with this overwhelming need, help has been hard to come by. More than 40% of employees in our survey say finding and accessing quality mental healthcare is difficult, a reality most pronounced in the Americas. While many employers stepped up during COVID-19 to provide access to mental health resources, reports swirling of employers planning to reduce this coverage are concerning. We need to seize the opportunity to “reset for the better” and protect the health of not only our workforces, but our entire society.
The extra benefits of extra benefits
Leading employers that provide comprehensive and convenient mental health resources stand to differentiate themselves in a competitive labor market. More than half of employees rate support that covers the cost of mental health treatment for themselves and their family members as an extremely valuable benefit. With critical labor shortages in the United States, a company’s benefits can be the deciding factor for potential employees.
In addition to talent attraction, our survey reveals that employers who provide mental health benefits will experience better talent retention as well. Some 42% of employees with access to mental health benefits say they are more likely to stay at their current organization (versus 27% of those without access to mental health benefits).
The Health on Demand report also clarifies which mental health benefits employees value most—with some unexpected results. For instance, almost half of workers say they would value virtual support groups to combat loneliness and isolation. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that more than a third of employees see value in accessing mental health advice powered by artificial intelligence—without any human involvement. While interacting with a mental health professional may be more beneficial, this suggests that technology and AI can play an important role in a mental health landscape where access is a bottleneck.
These findings coincide with another trend our survey uncovered: a new willingness to engage with virtual healthcare. Remote work and stay-at-home orders resulted in almost three-quarters of employees saying they used telehealth services in 2020. But this is unlikely to remain a pandemic-only trend: Upward of 84% of survey respondents said they plan to use digital services to meet some of their physical and mental health needs going forward. This means interest in teletherapy benefits is likely to increase.
While these are some of the benefits employees value most, it’s also important for employers to consider offering a full range of support services so that diverse needs can be met. While some employees may benefit from programs to build resilience or mindfulness, others may value targeted support for youth challenges, substance abuse, or workplace training. And for these programs to be viewed as genuine, it is critical that they be delivered as part of a larger culture of caring that includes meaningful flexibility, supportive leadership, and affordable healthcare.
Our research clearly demonstrates that employees value mental healthcare benefits. But it also shows that there is a significant return on investment for employers. Almost two-thirds of employees with access to mental healthcare benefits say they felt very well supported by their employers, versus 44% of those without access. And that support directly improved workers’ professional and personal resilience in the face of COVID-19. Well-supported employees generally viewed the pandemic as having both positive and negative impacts on their lives; those who received less support from their employers were twice as likely to view the pandemic as mostly or entirely negative. This suggests that offering mental health benefits to employees can help safeguard employers from employee turnover and productivity declines—increasing organizational resiliency in times of crisis.
The 2021 Health on Demand survey paints a clear picture: The pandemic has weighed heavily on workers. But employers are in a unique position to help ease the burden. By investing in employees’ mental health, employers have the chance to create more loyal employees, better business outcomes, and healthier societies. That’s a win-win-win.