Employers today understand the importance of investing in the wellbeing of their workforce, not only for the sake of their employees but also for their organization’s bottom line. These investments include things like expanded wellness programs, comprehensive employer assistance programs (EAPs), and digital mental health benefits. While all the above are essential for improving employee wellbeing and reducing the cost of healthcare, there’s one critical piece of the puzzle that employers often overlook: social determinants of health.
Let’s look at what social determinants of health are, the importance of health equity for employees, and why employers cannot afford to ignore the social determinants affecting their workforce.
What are social determinants of health?
Social determinants of health (SDOH) are non-medical social needs that influence individual health outcomes. As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), they “are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” The main categories of SDOH1 include:
- Economic stability
- Education access and quality
- Health care access and quality
- Neighborhood and environment
- Social and community context
How much money someone makes, where they live, whether they have stable housing and reliable transportation, and the quality of food they can access are examples of social determinants of health. Social factors like these contribute to 80% of a person’s health outcomes—such as mortality, morbidity, life expectancy, healthcare spending, and overall health status1—while the health care they receive accounts for just 20%.2
The importance of health equity for employees
When organizations select health benefits to offer their employees, they often look for those that can scale to their entire workforce, meaning that all employees receive uniform health benefits. This is an example of health equality.3 Health equity, however, happens when everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.4
So, while employer-sponsored health benefits may be available to all employees, not all employees have equal access to—or receive equal benefits from—them. Employees who struggle with food insecurity, housing instability, or any other social factors that affect their wellbeing don’t have the same opportunities to be healthy as employees who have their core social needs met.
Organizations that want to improve the wellbeing of their workforce should take an equity-based approach to benefits, by taking the needs of individual employees into account and offering resources that help meet those needs. By ensuring that workers with poor social determinants have their core needs met, employers can create an equal playing field where all employees have the same opportunities to be as healthy as possible.
Why employers can’t afford to ignore social determinants of health
Employers offer health benefits to improve the wellbeing of their workforce. Happy, healthy workers are more likely to have better health outcomes, which helps employers reduce the total cost of healthcare. But without identifying and addressing social determinants, organizations won’t realize the full ROI of health benefits.
Employees belonging to vulnerable populations, including lower-income workers and marginalized groups, develop chronic conditions and face other healthcare disparities at disproportionate rates.5 People in these groups often delay care until it becomes urgent or life-threatening due to poor social determinants, leading to higher healthcare costs for both the employee and the company.
When social risk factors are left unaddressed, the cycle of reactive care, poor health outcomes, and higher healthcare costs will not just continue but worsen. Employers who identify and address the social determinants impacting their workforce will reap the benefits of healthier, happier employees, improved health outcomes, and reduced healthcare costs.
Our clinical and business leaders build our EAP and mental health solutions based on principles that have been proven to improve health for a diverse population of members. Learn more about our approach to mental health care.