The general health of an individual is traditionally measured based on indicators such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, weight, and other vitals. Research, however, now indicates that Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) play a much larger role in a person’s health. SDOH are those non-medical factors like:
- Social networks,
- And more.
Studies have found that “75-80% of health outcomes are directly related to SDOH.” That means only around 20% is related to purely clinical components.
Until recently, most employer-sponsored medical insurance plans, as well as health and wellness programs, weren’t designed to address social determinants. But that’s changing as employers look for innovative ways to become more mindful of the whole person.
According to research by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), “When the health care system partners with employers, providers, well-being vendors, consumers, local, regional and federal governments and community organizations, the conditions in which people live can improve.” The report lists numerous areas where employers can have an impact. These include:
- Workplace safety
- Childcare programs
- Educational opportunities
- Job flexibility
- Stress reduction
- Paid maternity and sick leave
Socio-economic status. Higher income and social status are linked to better health. Greater economic disparity among populations leads to greater differences in health status and healthy behaviors. Employees who lack access to reliable, affordable transportation, healthy food, and affordable housing are at greater risk of absenteeism, lower productivity, and increased stress.
Education. Research has found that those with less education “tend to have ‘fewer employment choices’ leading to positions ‘with low levels of control, job insecurity, and low wages.’” Health literacy is also a problem. When individuals don’t have the capacity to obtain, process, or understand basic health information, it can impact their ability to make appropriate health decisions. They may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise with various health outcomes. Health literacy also comes into play in regard to reading and understanding food labels and how to compare and make healthier choices.
Physical environment. Clean water and air, safe housing, and access to healthy food and reliable transportation all contribute to good health. Individuals living in food deserts—neighborhoods where affordable fresh, healthy foods are unavailable—are more susceptible to chronic disease. “Food insecurity and insufficient access to healthy foods have been associated with negative health outcomes, including an increased vulnerability for micronutrient deficiencies and a higher probability of developing chronic diseases.”
Partnering for success
While the impact of SDoH on employers and employees is clear, it can be challenging for benefits administrators to fully address these factors in a way that is impactful and meaningful for each individual’s unique situation. Fortunately, there are health and wellness companies that can. The best partners are those that create customized programs based on each employee’s specific health needs and goals—including social determinants. Look for a partner who will work with your HR team to identify employee populations at high risk, such as those in low-paying positions or whose positions include high levels of stress and low autonomy. These partners will use this information to create a customized program for each participant.
The best partners are those that understand the importance of social networks. Many employees lack support from family and friends, or they face cultural influences that lead to poor health. Dedicated health coaches can help. By acknowledging and respecting an individual’s cultural customs, they can help individuals incorporate healthier versions of those traditions into a healthy lifestyle. In cases where participants have issues with access to food, coaches can tailor recipes for the types of food that the employee has access to.
It is also important to choose a partner with expertise in driving adoption across a wide range of employee populations—rural, urban, tech-savvy, low-tech—personalizing each participant’s experience as well as communication channels to ensure long-term engagement.
The bottom line
Helping employees achieve optimal health and wellness requires looking beyond the traditional health system to include non-medical factors. Addressing SDoH is a new imperative for health benefits managers seeking to reduce costs, lower absenteeism, and improve employee health and wellbeing. Partnering with health and wellness experts can help employers address SDoH in their employee populations in the short term while working on strategies for addressing greater social inequities in their communities.
Learn how Newtopia’s solutions can help bridge SDoH inequities here.