Beyond Compassion: Why Business Leaders Need to Care About Healthcare Disparities
Nearly 30 million Americans did not have health insurance in 2021. If you're a business owner, it's time to pay attention: These are not just statistics or people you'll never meet. They're your employees, your customers and even their families, and there's no better place to make change than within the walls of your own organization.
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At the outset of 2022, despite the financial challenges imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the global wellness industry held value at $4.4 trillion. In the U.S., the wellness market has grown to over $52.5 billion. Taken alone, these numbers indicate a highly wellness-committed culture. But these numbers, like so many others, are leaving out a huge part of the story: underserved communities.
Dig a little deeper and the true story of health and wellness in America doesn't shine so bright. In 2021, 29.3 million Americans had no health insurance. That's nearly 9% of the population. Lack of access hits some groups harder than others: people of color, women, families with young children, low-income workers and young adults.
If you're a business owner, it's time to pay attention — these are not just statistics or people you will never meet. These are, in fact, the employees who work for your company and the customers who purchase your products and services. Their ability to engage with your company in meaningful ways that support your success cannot be divorced from access, or lack of access, to equitable health and wellness.
What are healthcare disparities?
Disparities are preventable differences in access to, quality, or outcomes of health and wellness based on social disadvantages like socioeconomic status, racial or ethnic group, religion, gender, gender identity, sexuality, geographic location, mental health or disability. And let's not beat around the bush: disparities are a compounding, circuitous problem.
For example, when compared to the average woman in the U.S., Black women earn less per year, have higher rates of unemployment, are more likely to experience poverty and are less likely to have access to adequate education, food and housing. They're also more likely to suffer from chronic, debilitating and untreated health conditions like cardiovascular disease and uterine fibroids due to lack of access to quality, affordable healthcare.
They are more likely to miss work, experience unemployment and poverty, incur significant financial debt, and suffer housing and food access inequities. They're unable to keep pace with the financial demands of the consumer marketplace, and especially now with excessive inflation.
Why you should care
In the workplace disparities equate to increased absenteeism, presenteeism and low productivity, low engagement and morale, and eventually, increasing levels of workplace dissatisfaction. Ultimately, these preventable workplace experiences contribute to a negative feedback loop that cripples the workforce and damages businesses. If you're a business owner and you haven't seen this happening in your own organization, you need to take a second look. Presenteeism — being present at work while ill — costs employers a combined $150 billion each year, and absenteeism costs about $225.8 billion, or $1,685 per employee annually. The U.S. Chamber Foundation reports that for those companies removing barriers to equitable healthcare save three dollars in lost productivity for every dollar they invest in wellness. That's great for the bottom line.
If that's not enough to peak your interest, consider that your competition is already building and executing on programs to help their employees, and future employees, find equitable housing, afford the costs of education and childcare, eat healthier and feel less stressed. If you're not paying attention to and actively working to solve disparities for the people you hire, recruitment and retention are about to become a glaring problem.
How you can help overcome health and wellness disparities
The two most common ways entrepreneurs make positive impacts in our communities is through social responsibility programs and philanthropy. Equally as important is a willingness to commit to creating social change through the policies and programs we put in place for our own employees.
Establishing employment policies that create foundations for wellness makes an immediate positive impact on company employees and the organization and sets a precedent for positive change in the community. Employees who are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially well are more productive and maintain regular attendance to work. This, in turn, has a positive effect on your company's bottom line.
It also has long term positive effects on the economy and society; well people apply their finances towards housing, food, regular and proper healthcare, and educational opportunities that further increase their earning potential, which further increases their ability to contribute to the economy. In fact, just as disparities have negative compounding impacts on individuals and communities, the mitigation of disparities invariably leads to positive compounding impacts.
The best total wellness programs include healthcare plans that maximize care while minimizing employee costs, extra time off for visits to the doctor and dentist, flexible schedules and telework policies, encouragement and rewards for engaging in healthy behaviors, and company-paid support for wellness programs in mental, physical, financial and emotional health.
Some of the best programs I have seen offer free access to online mental counseling services, weekly massages and in-office fitness classes, paid exercise time, free catered meals or stocked kitchens in the office, additional leave banks for doctor appointments, weight management support groups, company-funded tobacco cessation programs and reimbursement for wellness expenses.
But it doesn't stop there. If you really want to make positive change for underserved communities, you have to start with what they really need.
If your employees commute more than 30 minutes, offer more telework opportunities and flexible schedules. Subsidize their bus passes, rail tickets and parking. If they have children, offer flex opportunities that allow them to skip daycare — or build a free daycare on site. Build a gym in the office. Reduce the number of meetings each week by half. Institute "phones off" policies that allow your employees to truly unplug at home and on the weekend. Pay your employees enough that they don't need a second job and create flexibility for them if they need one.
But what does all of that have to do with wellness in underserved communities? As successful business owners, we are (or we become) far removed from the experience of not having equitable access, so we lose the ability to see the interconnectedness of things. Paying for an employee's monthly bus pass may seem like it has nothing to do with wellness, until you realize that the $75 it costs them could be used to buy healthy groceries, help pay the heating bill in winter or cover the cost of their child's prescription.
It begins to level the playing financial playing field and reduces stress. This thing that moments ago was about transportation is suddenly about so much more. Now imagine the significance of a $1,200 daycare subsidy. It is also important to look beyond the impact on your employees. These benefits extend to their children and spouses, the communities where they live, eat, shop and go to school, creating a positive feedback loop that positively impacts your business and also provides a gentle lift for the community.
The most successful businesses and the most successful economies are those that take care of the people who run them. As entrepreneurs in a business landscape that, for the better, requires increasing humanity over productivity, there is no better place to practice change than within the walls of our own organizations.