Understanding SDOH Impacts on Employees

two females talking about social determinants of health

Part One of our social determinants of health (SDOH) discussion defined SDOH and the outsize impact of SDOH on individual well-being and productivity. In Part Two, we’ll take a deeper dive into the socioeconomic drivers of health.

Nonmedical causes impact health

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Healthy People 2030 initiative identifies five main categories of SDOH:

  1. Financial stability
  2. Access to quality health care
  3. Living conditions and environment
  4. Access to quality education
  5. Social and community influences

Together, these factors account for 80% to 90% of any individual’s health outcomes. That’s why the 80% Project was created - to address SDOH among the communities where we live and work. The project is rooted in our commitment to whole-person care and serving others in body, mind, and spirit. 

“The 80% Project has two objectives,” says Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of SDOH at Highmark Health. “One is to educate people about the impacts of SDOH on their health. The other is to bundle our SDOH efforts under one platform, so we can more clearly articulate how we can help everyone in the communities we serve.” 

We developed SDOH assessments for our employee health plan members so we can better understand each person’s unique challenges and opportunities. Knowing how your employees may be struggling — and what help they need — is an important step forward for improved wellness and workplace productivity.

Financial stability at the core

In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 37.9 million people — 11.6% of Americans — live in poverty. In addition, the HHS says that, besides those who officially live below the poverty level, there are many more Americans whose needs go unmet due to low income. 

Lack of financial stability makes it harder to locate safe and affordable housing, healthy foods, educational and training opportunities, essential modern technologies, and transportation. All of these factors combine to impact quality of life, including access to health care.

Access to quality health care

Health benefits are not enough to ensure access to health care. People also need transportation, money for copays, and the flexibility to leave work for a doctor’s visit. 

A study funded by CVS Health found that working mothers put their health care needs behind the demands of work, children, and family. They are reluctant to ask for help with their mental health in particular. Meanwhile, over 40% of working moms are living with anxiety or depression, including 30% who say their condition has worsened. 

Many employer health plans offer mental health benefits and resources, both virtual and in person. Employees can get help finding a mental health specialist by working with their primary care physician (PCP) or talking to a health plan advisor. They should have the privacy, flexibility, and freedom to pursue treatment, along with the encouragement to get the care they need. 

Promoting the programs and value-added features available through your health plan helps ensure employees are aware of — and able to access — online patient education, preventive care, health coaches, virtual care options, and lifestyle improvement programs. 

Making health care easier to access — through help finding transportation to an appointment or time off to attend to health needs — can help eliminate certain SDOH risks, contain costs, and keep employees happier, healthier, and more productive.

Housing, education, and community support

The other three SDOH identified by HHS also affect employee health, presenteeism, and productivity. Each influences quality of work — and life — in different ways:

  • Living conditions and environment: Many people lack access to affordable housing in walkable, crime-free neighborhoods with clean air and water. This presents risks to both health and safety.
  • Access to quality education: Teacher shortages, aging schools, and increasing costs are all barriers to quality education and future earning potential. Fewer chances for financial success make the potential impact of SDOH much greater.
  • Social and community influences: Where people live is important, but so is who they interact with and what influence others have over their decision-making. Healthy habits become easier when there are positive family, social, and community relationships.

“Once an employer identifies an employee with a health-related social need, Highmark will connect them to local care and resources that are either free or low cost,” explains Abebe. “It could be a local food bank or a nonprofit that can help with utility costs. Community support should be part of every employee health and well-being program.”

SDOH awareness and visibility

Not all employees will want to complete an SDOH assessment. Still, it is essential for them to understand how non-health-related conditions and activities impact their overall wellness and what resources are available to help them toward a healthier future. 

Health Plan customers can find support via our health and wellness programs, community resources and support, and other educational tools.

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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