Social Determinants of Health in the Workplace

group of health professionals having a meeting around a table

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the root issues that impact a person’s health outcomes. SDOH include food insecurity, housing stability, transportation needs, financial strain, health literacy, digital skills, technology access, domestic violence, and related factors.

Addressing these socioeconomic drivers of poor health has become increasingly important in controlling health care costs. Consider this data:

“There’s a real need to address the root causes of poor health now,” says Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of SDOH at Highmark Health. “Our 80% Project, named after the impact of SDOH on an individuals’ overall health and well-being, will help minimize social barriers to better health and wellness for the communities and customers we serve. But this must be a shared effort by providers, employers, community groups, outreach agencies, and local, state and federal government alike.”

SDOH, DEI, and a culture of health

SDOH play a key role in employee productivity. The better we understand an individual’s unique life situation, the better we can create sustainable solutions for that person and their dependents.

That’s why screening workers for social health risks is important. Choosing an employee health plan with an SDOH component helps employers understand the factors that negatively impact their employee’s health.

Addressing social risk factors can help control employee health plan costs, while also improving quality of life for employees. Highmark is one company that is at the forefront of SDOH screening, sending an assessment tool to all its members. 

“Creating a culture of health means making sure that every employee has access to health and well-being resources,” says Abebe. “Employers need to view health and SDOH with an eye on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).”

This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Appointing relatable “employee health champions” who can help drive employee engagement with employer-sponsored programs and community resources, while also supporting employee adoption of healthier behaviors.
  • Ensuring that internal and external health, and well-being programs and communications, are culturally and linguistically appropriate for all people within the workplace.
  • Designating a team within the DEI and/or HR community that can increase awareness of healthy behaviors, preventive care, and available insurance coverage.

Life, work, stress, and health care costs

Stressful life events can contribute to chronic conditions and higher health care costs. 

“Imagine an employee who is living paycheck to paycheck,” says Abebe. “Their car breaks down. Now they must decide between fixing the car and paying for food, housing, or medication. The financial stress of the situation can lead them to make trade-offs that aggravate existing conditions.” 

SDOH research from McKinsey & Company shows that 45% of adults have at least one unmet basic need and 60% have at least one chronic disease. Working people with unmet needs are 2.4 times more likely to not get the care they need. They also miss six or more days of work each year. Data from Health Affairs indicates that food insecurity alone can cost an extra $2,500 in health care spending per family.

Creating a culture of health involves looking at the employee population in terms of high, medium, and low risk. Offering supportive programs — such as employee assistance plans, emergency funds, and community and government help — for at-risk employees is another big piece of the puzzle.

The future of employee health and well-being

Addressing the root causes of poor health can help move the needle toward integrating and improving physical, behavioral, and social well-being. It is the only way for employers to control their employee health costs year over year, while also improving productivity levels, employee retention, and quality of life. 

Highmark is laser-focused on educating our customers about SDOH and providing a robust portfolio of solutions that include community support tools. Learn more here:

All references to “Highmark” in this communication are references to Highmark Inc., an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and/or to one or more of its affiliated Blue companies.

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