U.S. employers are expanding efforts to enhance their employees’ wellbeing as they map out a benefit strategy for operating in a post-pandemic environment. These initiatives come as less than three in 10 employers say their wellbeing (29%) and caregiving (27%) programs have been effective at supporting employees during the pandemic. That’s according to a new survey by Willis Towers Watson, which also found the majority of employers cite rising stress and burnout as the number one wellbeing and mental health concern — generated by an increase in caregiving needs and a lack of social connections.

“The pandemic has taken its toll on employees especially in the areas of emotional and social wellbeing. In fact, the impact is so great that many employers expect these effects will continue in a post-vaccine environment,” said Regina Ihrke, Wellbeing leader, North America, Willis Towers Watson. “Therefore, many employers are now acting with urgency as they look to take their wellbeing programs to the next level. To achieve this transformation, they will ramp up listening to their employee needs, communication efforts and realignment of benefit programs with a focus on mental health and caregiving.”

More than half of respondents (54%) report rising stress or burnout as the biggest wellbeing challenge connected to the pandemic, while 40% cite higher mental health-related claims as a top challenge. To address these challenges, 62% cite enhancing mental health services and stress/resilience management as a top priority over the next six months, compared with just 47% six months ago. Additionally, twice as many employers report developing a strategy for benefits in a post-COVID-19 environment as a top priority over the next six months (33%) compared with six months ago (15%), indicating a shift from crisis management to future planning. More than two-thirds (68%) cite communicating benefits and wellbeing programs as a top benefits priority over the next six months. 

Supporting the needs of employee caregivers
While employers addressed some caregiving and childcare issues through many initiatives in 2020, important challenges still remain for employees and employers alike. The survey found two in three employers (67%) identify increased caregiving demands as the top driver of employee mental health concerns. The survey also reported that caregiving issues for employees with young and school-age children (56%) and decreased use of paid time off (43%) are the top workforce challenges due to the pandemic. 

To promote employee wellbeing, many employers also modified employee benefits. Half (50%) changed the features of paid time off or vacation/sick day benefits offered, and about a quarter (23%) changed their annual carryover limits.

“Employers have assessed their caregiving support was not as effective as hoped, and as a result the mental health of their workforce is suffering. Many solutions were short term in nature, which contributed to their ineffectiveness. With the stakes so high, employers need a revamped approach to caregiving support that includes a holistic view of benefits, paid time off and flexible work policies,” said Rachael McCann, senior director, Health and Benefits, Willis Towers Watson.

Preparing for vaccines

The survey also found that may employers are exploring ways to increase employees’ access to vaccines. Nearly two-thirds (65%) are planning or considering exploring vendor solutions to provide vaccines. Almost no employers have mandated vaccines, but 45% are planning or considering proof of vaccination as a condition to return to in-person work, while 34% are planning or considering mandating vaccines as a condition of employment.

Other key findings from the survey:

  • ​​​​Return to normal: Two-thirds of employers (67%) expect the pandemic to recede enough so they can reach a “new normal” in terms of returning to the workplace and bringing to an end pandemic-related policies and programs during the second half of 2021. One in four (26%) expect that to happen by the first quarter of 2022 or later.
  • Remote workers: Employers expect nearly two in five employees will still be working remotely at the end of 2021, compared with 57% who work remotely now, although that varies by industry.
  • Health care costs: More than six in 10 employers (61%) say their medical and pharmacy benefit costs came in under budget in 2020. Among those that came under budget, more than one-third (37%) report actual costs 8% or more below budget. Despite this, employers remain cautious and are budgeting a 4.2% median increase for 2021 before making plan design changes and 3.0% after plan changes.