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Mental health, virtual care rise to surface: Highlights from the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

Employee health has declined over the past year, while the utilization of employee assistance programs, mental health paramedical services and prescription drugs have increased, reports the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey. On the other hand, employees and employers alike have embraced virtual healthcare services and working from home      appears to have lessened the impact of chronic diseases on work productivity.

These are among the many findings of this survey, which are based on the responses of 1,000 plan members (surveyed in May 2021) and 524 plan sponsors (surveyed in May and June 2021). This year is the 24th edition of the survey, formerly the Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey produced in partnership with Benefits Canada; earlier this year, Benefits Canada assumed full ownership of this edition of the survey.

The results for 2021 are broken down into three key subject areas: personal health, health benefits plans and the work environment. Selected highlights are presented here:

Personal health

  • 13% of plan members described their health as poor, up from 8% and the first notable increase since the question was first asked in 2018. That figure increases to 23% among those experiencing high levels of stress (about one-third of all plan members).
  • 41% gained weight, 36% felt more anxious or sad, 29% had more trouble sleeping and 15% increased alcohol consumption.
  • 60% of plan members live with a chronic condition and 45% experience chronic pain. When chronic pain is combined with other chronic conditions, the report states that 72% of plan members live with a chronic condition and/or chronic pain.
  • Among those with a chronic condition and/or pain who were working from home, 77% agreed that the home environment resulted in less work missed due to their condition.
  • Almost half (48%) of plan members delayed treatment or going to a healthcare provider during the pandemic.
  • 43% reported receiving healthcare services virtually, mainly for new illnesses or symptoms. They were positive about the quality of care received, especially through their workplace health benefits plan.
  • When surveyed in May 2021, 90% plan members had been or planned to get vaccinated. Of the remaining, 8% had decided not to get vaccinated and 3% would not for health or religious reasons (numbers add up to 101% due to rounding).

Health benefits plans

  • Nearly two out of three (68%) plan members described the quality of their health benefits plan as good or excellent, unchanged from before the pandemic. However, consistent with previous years, those in poor health were less likely to be positive.
  • 41% of plan sponsors offer virtual healthcare services, where plan members can connect with a healthcare professional by phone or computer, through their benefits plan. This is comparable to the number of plan sponsors that offer healthcare spending accounts (39%).
  • Nearly three out of four (74%) plan sponsors receive claims data analyses on main disease states, up from 58% in 2018.
  • Regarding possible future benefits (including options for wellness/personal spending accounts), plan members were most interested in offerings to do with physical fitness. Plan sponsors, meanwhile, were more interested in providing coverage for virtual care, immunizations and health risk screenings.
  • 67% of plan sponsors plan to invest in wellness areas outside of their health benefits plan in the next three years, down from 75% in 2020. As in previous years, investments in mental health are at the forefront; however, this year’s results suggest that increased investments in mental health may be at the expense of other major wellness areas, such as physical fitness and financial health.

Work environment

  • Among plan members who can work from home, 93% would like to do so after the pandemic. On average, they would like to work at home 57% of the time.
  • Plan sponsors, meanwhile, would like 45% of their workforce to work from home at least part of the time after the pandemic.
  • Plan members returning to the workplace are most concerned about the time lost due to commuting (44%), people not following public health safety measures (42%) and working with people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 (38%).
  • 55% of plan sponsors anticipate different health and wellness challenges arising from a hybrid workforce. The top three all relate to mental health: claims due to stress/isolation associated with working from home (68%), anxiety among employees when at the workplace because they are unsure if co-workers have been vaccinated (65%) and the identification of mental health