As a health economist using macro- and micro-data points to support some of the nation’s most influential employers, Dr. Aaron Novotny shares why it is critical to take a more proactive role in the health of our nation’s workforce to fuel future wellness, productivity and prosperity.
Across the country, individuals and employers are realigning priorities on how to live and work following two years of unprecedented disruption. While questions remain on how to protect the health and wellbeing of individuals and families as the risk of COVID-19 lingers, many are looking to the future. For many communities, that means back to on-site work, with a reemergence of everything from global manufacturing, national retail and service sectors, down to the neighborhood coffee store or auto shop.
While our nation’s economy is one of the most diverse in the world, a common denominator is that the individuals that make up our nation’s workforce are at the center. Across that workforce, and among individuals of diverse economic and employment standing, the experience of the last two years has led many to reevaluate what they and their families need in order to safely and effectively cultivate economic growth.
In my role as health economist at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the insurance administrator to some very large companies in retail, distribution, food production and more, I am focused on helping shape the insurance products that can fuel a workforce of more than 2 million covered lives. As we understand the changing needs of employees, there is a common thread that stands above all – a focus on diverse and interconnected health needs. Understanding how a shifting provider landscape shapes access to care, how barriers to these access points via environmental factors alter employee behaviors, what programs can work to alter adverse health patterns, and examining the overall health and well-being are all factors explored to help inform the direction of health and prosperity in our nation.
The pandemic opened our eyes to the speed to which health issues can change our lives, from immediate health risks to the influence on mental health and the health of our family and community. As we look to the future, individuals are seeking more support for their health and wellness, to stay active and prosperous, and prevent burnout. As one of the most influential partners in health, employers have a renewed opportunity to commit to the health of their greatest asset.
Acknowledging the Complete Definition of Health
It is critical to acknowledge that health is not shaped by limited, clinical factors. Lifestyle, behavior, environment, medical history and more have a significant impact on how we are and how we stay healthy. These factors also extend beyond the individual, into family, community, and where people work, play and live. Taking these factors into consideration is what we call a “whole person health” approach to care.
One of the most important things that businesses can do is to adopt this type of whole person health approach for their workforce. Employers should look at an employee’s experience beyond their working hours to understand the underlying drivers that can impact their physical health, mental wellbeing and resulting experience at work. By doing so, they can deliver on expectations in benefits, as well as culture and leadership. Individuals are increasingly expecting—and needing—resources, like those for behavioral health, to support their strength and productivity.
How Employers can Take a Whole Person Health Approach to their Teams
While there are many factors which influence the health, wellness and productivity of an individual or employee body, employers should not feel like it’s too much to take on. There are key areas of focus which, based on our research and experience can contribute to improving employee engagement and creating a healthier workforce.
Support Social Determinants of Health
Where and how we live determines our health outcomes. These are known as social determinants of health. Employers can play a critical role in addressing these factors to improve whole person health. Social and economic disadvantages such as lack of reliable transportation, housing, food or childcare can all lead to poor health, both physically and mentally. Understanding the impact, and delivering traditional and non-traditional benefits, can make a significant difference.
Expand Physical Health Care
Physical health and preventive care should be of the utmost importance to all of us. When our physical health suffers, every other aspect of our lives is impacted. Empowering employee teams to get their annual wellness checkups and vital screenings, including for mental health needs, is especially important because we often take our health for granted until there is a crisis. Employers can take advantage of health education programs that are tailored to their own workforce, informed by data and accessible in the most convenient way possible. By empowering and educating employers, along with their family and community, to take control of their own health can help influence prosperity and even support affordability of care.
Behavioral Health is as Important as Physical
While many people ignore their mental health or self-treat, 80 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are due to chronic stress or underlying mental health issues. When someone is under constant stress, it negatively affects both physical health and mental health, which can quickly translate to issues in the workplace. A wellness program can bring positive change to work and allow employees to flourish by normalizing the conversation about mental health. Changing employee behavior is no small feat and mental health has a lot of stigma attached to it, which can create a barrier of care. Evolving workplace culture to acknowledge behavioral and mental health needs is an important first step to helping individuals get the care they need and foster a more engaged, supportive environment.
Forward Thinking Actions to Fuel Long-Term Prosperity and Affordability
It is well-known that the U.S. spends more on healthcare than the rest of the world. However, much of the cost is on treatment of disease rather than taking a proactive, preventive and integrated whole person approach to health. By exploring the data and understanding the evolving needs of the workforce, their families and communities, we can develop programs and approaches that keep employees healthy and productive, fuel growth in our communities and help make care more affordable. Moreover, these insights can also be used in the important collaboration between the payer sector, providers and industry to shape the future of key areas such as affordability, care utilization and the type of specialty care sought.
My team at Arkansas Blue Cross is delivering programs and partnerships across some of our nation’s leading industries. We acknowledge whole person health and are focused on improving individual and community physical, mental and social health. We work with innovators and leading companies that energize our nation’s economy and are proud to play a role in helping keep the most important asset, the people, healthy and productive for years to come.