Employers are taking action to create a more supportive workplace, but not enough are addressing substance use disorders (SUDs).
That’s according to a new report by Mercer, which found that behavioral health was top of mind for most employers, but that more work needs to be done to implement preventative screenings and support employees with SUD broadly.
New York City-based Mercer is a human resource consulting firm with 25,000 employees in over 130 countries.
The report found that health benefit costs rose 5.2% in 2023 due to inflation but that employers continued to work to address behavioral health issues currently affecting their employees.
The top employer concern was job-related stress, which 68% of employers considered an issue. Additionally, 67% of employers thought depression and anxiety were problems, and 59% said financial stress was an issue.
Most employers recently assessed their employees’ behavioral health needs, with only 23% not having recently assessed needs or having plans to do so.
“Importantly, 44% are conducting claims analyses to better understand what services employees are using, how they’re using them, and for what reasons,” the report’s authors wrote. “This type of analysis can both provide an indication of the behavioral health issues in the population and identify gaps in benefit utilization across different employee segments, helping to inform future strategy.”
Employers are not just identifying pressure points; many have taken action to increase behavioral health care utilization or foster a more supportive environment. Expanding or enhancing employee assistance programs (EAPs) was the most common action item, with over two-thirds of respondents reporting this.
Improvements to EAPs include increasing the number of sessions, allowing patients to schedule an appointment with a provider online and integrating with the health plan to ensure continuity of care after EAP sessions.
Almost 60% of employers who took action to enhance their EAP said they found the changes to be effective or very effective.
Other common employer action items include adding a supplemental network for virtual or in-person care and increasing screenings for mental health and/or SUD.
About two-fifths of employers created a supplemental provider network. This action was rated the highest for effectiveness by employers. These supplemental networks address the shortage of behavioral health providers and make it easier for people to get care.
While about a third of employers say alcohol use is a concern or serious concern, and a fourth say that opioid or other types of SUD are a concern or serious concern, not enough are taking steps to improve the current standings, the report’s authors said.
A minority of employers created communications or resources to raise awareness of substance use issues, pushed for plans to monitor in-network providers prescribing behavior or included coverage for medication-assisted treatment.
Almost half of employers took none of these actions.
“Alcohol and substance use disorders became both more common and more severe during the pandemic,” the report’s authors wrote.”While about a third of employers say that alcohol use is a problem in their workforce, and about a fourth are concerned about opioid or other substance use, relatively few have taken action beyond awareness campaigns to provide support for employees with these disorders.”
Medication-assisted treatment, an effective form of treatment for opioid use disorder and other types of SUD, was only covered by 20% of employers.
While employers focus on improving high levels of need for behavioral health care, they are preparing for accelerated rates of health cost growth. These costs will likely factor into continued plans to support employees’ behavioral health needs.
“In [employers’] planning for 2024, they are pursuing cost management strategies that can slow cost growth over the longer term while minimizing cost shifting to employees,” the report’s authors wrote.