Employers in the U.S. expect health benefits costs to rise 4.7 per cent on average in 2022 compared to 2021, according to a new survey from Mercer.

The survey, based on more than 1,500 employer responses, found fewer employers than usual (38 per cent) are using cost-savings measures — such as raising deductibles or co-pays — to shift expenses to employees, despite benefits utilization and spending returning to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels. This number is down from 47 per cent last year.

Read: Survey finds cost of employer benefits in Canada set to rise 7% in 2022

In addition, employees’ average share of total health plan premiums remained stable at 22 per cent. Among employers with 20,000 or more workers, 32 per cent said they’ll decrease their employees’ share, while just 17 per cent plan to increase it.

Half of all respondents with 500 or more employees and 65 per cent of those with 20,000 or more employees said improving affordability for lower-wage workers will be an important or very important priority over the next three to five years.

The survey also found increased use of virtual health-care services by employees amid the pandemic. Among employers with 500 or more workers, use of these services grew from an average of nine per cent in 2019 to 17 per cent in 2020. In addition, 25 per cent of employers said they’re emphasizing virtual health-care strategies to address potential barriers to health care that remote workers may face, especially for employees who live farther from urban areas.

Read: Canadian employees prioritizing benefits programs over pay: survey

With more employees working remotely, 21 per cent of employers said they’ll add or enhance well-being initiatives that are targeted specifically to remote workers, such as delivery of meals or snacks, subsidized ergonomic office furniture or a stipend for well-being services or activities.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of employers with 500 or more workers said addressing employees’ mental and emotional health will be a top priority over the next three to five years. And 30 per cent of employers said they provide employees with a virtual behavioural health-care option, with another 21 per cent considering it.