“Social determinants of health” is a phrase you are likely to hear more often as our awareness of what affects our health shifts in the wake of the pandemic and social justice advocacy. Social determinants of health (SDoH) are how the environments in which we live, work, and recreate impact our health. The average American will spend one-third of their life working, so the way that our workplaces do or do not support our health has a huge impact on our overall wellness. A stressor in one area of an employee’s life can keep them from being present and productive and can have severe negative impacts in the future, so it pays to support all aspects of employee wellness.
Studies have shown:
- Chronic and mental health conditions account for 90% of U.S. health care costs. (1)
- Organizations spend over $15,000 on average annually on each employee experiencing mental health issues. (2)
- About 80% of chronic diseases are driven by lifestyle factors (diet and exercise). (3)
- Eliminating unhealthy foods, inactivity, and smoking could prevent 80% of heart disease and 80% of Type 2 diabetes. (4)
The statistics above show the relationship between lifestyle and chronic disease, which has trickle-down effects on sick days and insurance claims. Lifestyle is directly influenced by SDoH; an employee wellness program that addresses root causes of negative SDoH can contribute to positive and lasting lifestyle changes. Looking further, poor health among workers will also certainly impact employee retention, morale, and workplace safety.
Coping with Stress
It’s important to look at stress as a key element in employees’ total health, considering how mental health concerns have soared. The latest Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report showed U.S. and Canadian workers to be the most stressed in the world, which isn’t surprising to Gallup scientists who have seen the numbers climbing for a decade. The pandemic was a major source of anxiety in the last two years, but financial inequality, racial trauma and discrimination, family responsibilities, and sickness have also contributed to elevated stress levels (5).
Innovative companies are taking stress seriously and adapting for remote, in-person, and hybrid workers. Experts suggest a good start is to lead by example. Managers need to be role models of emotionally healthy behavior, even if training is required. Leaders and supervisors are encouraged to introduce counseling programs, like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), communicate honestly, create social connectivity, and dedicate a spot in the office as a “chill out” space. Employee wellness programs can encourage these goals by providing resources through health coaching and EAP, promoting team building through group wellness challenges, and offering resources on self-care and stress relief.
The Safety Connection
National programs that connect safety and health are based on the recognition that work is in fact a social determinant of health. Job-related issues such as wages, work hours, workload, interactions with coworkers and supervisors, and access to paid leave influence the well-being of workers and their families. It’s not surprising that more companies are combining these efforts and merging safety and wellness personnel into the programs they provide. The connection between worker well-being and safety is a close one, especially for work that is strenuous and repetitive and for which being in good physical shape is essential.
There are numerous links between workplace stress and work-related illness. Stress contributes to high blood pressure, inadequate sleep, and fatigue that can cause poor decision-making, increased errors, and directly reduce concentration and the ability to work safely, even for employees in non-physical jobs (6). Poor employer/employee relationships, irregular shifts, and long work hours contribute to workplace injury. According to OSHA, 12-hour workdays are associated with a 37% increase in work injuries and each extended shift per month can increase the chance of a motor vehicle crash during commute by 16.2% (7). A key piece of employee wellness is making sure workers have the time and energy to care for themselves and to utilize the wellness resources provided through their wellness program.
A Well Employee is a Happy Employee
Labor shortages are in the news as demonstrated by headlines describing “The Great Resignation.” Consequently, retention of employees has become a priority for employers. When you treat employees like the asset they are, their satisfaction quotients are higher. An excellent way to show appreciation is to be proactive about employees’ health, especially considering the lessons we continue to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and those that continue to deal with its effects.
Research bears out the value of wellness. A study appearing in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed retention rates were highest for employees with either telephonic wellness program activities or health risk surveys and lowest for employees who did not participate in any health interventions. Participants ranged from 71% more likely to 5% less likely to remain with their employers compared with nonparticipants, depending on the sample used in analyses. (8) A study of six companies that are prioritizing employee wellness showed an average turnover rate of just 14%, compared to the national average of 40% as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (9).
Solutions can be implemented with help from professional wellness providers and input from the workforce. As an employer there are many ways you can address the SDoH of your employees through active listening, wellness programming, and advocacy (10). Providing resources to employees to help them deal with stressors outside of work, from caregiving to healthy food to medical providers, allows them to be more present, focused, and safe at work.
- What are the leading causes of stress for Americans? | health enews (ahchealthenews.com)
- Long Work Hours, Extended or Irregular Shifts, and Worker Fatigue - Hazards | Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha.gov)
- https://hero-health.org/wp content/uploads/2019/09/HERO_HWHC_SDOH_Report_FINAL_090419.pdf