How organisations can help advance health equity in the workplace

Aside from the moral imperative, there is a strong business case for addressing health inequalities at work, says Monica McCoy

Credit: Monica Motivates

Health inequities exist. In the US, there are large disparities in the prevalence of heart disease among Black communities compared to white. There are also major differences in maternal and foetal health between these two communities. In the UK, Covid contributed to widening inequalities in life expectancy, while ethnic minority groups were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Employers have a key role to play in closing these gaps and in making sure that access to healthcare is not dependent on factors outside of the control of individuals. By advancing health equity in the workplace, they can help to advance it all the way across society. 

Make the business case

By addressing health inequities, companies would not just fulfil a moral imperative. There’s a powerful business case to boosting health equity, and it’s one that HR professionals and senior team members should make to those in their organisations who are sceptical of the value of any intervention. Workers suffer a 21.5 per cent loss in productivity if they suffer from depression, and a 13 per cent loss if they experience chronic pain. A healthy workforce is a productive workforce. In 2022, Deloitte found that inequities in the US health system cost around $320bn every year. Deloitte also found that, if they remained unaddressed, that cost could rise to more than $1trn annually by 2040.

Provide robust virtual services

Once you have buy-in, the first step is to assess your current offerings and identify gaps. One major area of opportunity is in virtual health services. Research shows the global telemedicine market, driven by the pandemic, will grow to $432bn in 2030 from $40.2bn in 2020. That shows the rising demand for telehealth services, and it’s highly relevant to health equity. Virtual health services allow those who live in communities with limited access to healthcare to get some of the support they might need. Virtual services also reduce transportation barriers, time away from children or other dependents and potential travel time, among other inconveniences. Though virtual solutions can’t constitute completely comprehensive care, providing them is nonetheless a means to meaningfully reduce health inequity, especially in teams where individuals might be isolated or living in disadvantaged areas.

Ensure health benefits are easy to understand

Employers need to make sure that their offerings are easy to understand. This shouldn’t be taken for granted. McKinsey found that, in the US, employees of colour were 1.4 to 1.5 times more likely than white employees to find tools and resources explaining benefits unhelpful, even at the highest income levels. Making benefits easy to understand could involve using a centralised solution, such as a health assistant, that allows team members to have a single point of contact for all their health needs and benefits. It is also important to scrutinise language and imagery for anything that might be exclusionary, and to ensure that the HR or people professionals have the training needed to identify employees who might need health support and to direct them towards benefits programmes. It is also crucial to recognise whether any language barriers exist, and ensure that your health benefits are translated into the relevant language or languages.

Engage employees in learning

It is also useful to advance education in health equity in the workplace. This could overlap with awareness raising around historic inequality, implicit bias and cultural difference, for example. By opening discussions and distributing materials around health equity, employees can be encouraged to reflect on and talk about health among themselves, and also to engage critically with your health equity benefits, so that they can let you know if there are any gaps you’ve failed to notice. Educating employees also helps to provide them with the language to communicate any difficulties they might have in taking advantage of the benefits offered. 

Track progress

It’s important to take a data-driven approach to your health equity initiatives so that you can gauge your success, make adjustments and strengthen your business case; that will help to ensure that financial pressures from elsewhere don’t undermine your health equity strategy as you move forward. Anonymous surveys and feedback forms can be an unobtrusive but effective way of getting a sense of how employees are responding to your attempts to advance health equity.

Consider socioeconomic factors

Socioeconomic factors must be a key consideration in any health equity programme. Discussions around health conditions and needs between people often centre on race, gender and sexuality. Long-term conditions are in fact a major cause of poor quality of life in England, with people in lower socioeconomic groups more likely to suffer from long-term health conditions, for example. These conditions also tend to be more severe than they are for comparatively wealthy groups.

Final thoughts

Employers have an opportunity to change their society through the way they run their businesses. This shouldn’t be understated. In many societies, health equity doesn’t exist, and certain people, and certain groups, reliably suffer more than others because the approach to health is not progressive or compassionate enough. Organisations can lead by example, as they so often do, and, through their work, they can inspire the kind of transformation that makes our world a better place to live in.

Monica McCoy is CEO and founder of Monica Motivates