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The Right Employer Could Extend Your ‘Healthspan’

Wendi Safstrom leads a session onstage at SHRM24
Wendi Safstrom, President of the SHRM Foundation, moderates a session about health benefits at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024.

Health equity is crucial to ensuring that employees lead long and high-quality lives, and employers have a duty to prioritize the well-being of their workers.

This was the message delivered by a group of inclusion and health leaders in a concurrent session titled “10 Ways YOU Can Improve the Length and Quality of Your Employees’ Lives” at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024 (SHRM24) in Chicago and virtually on June 24. The session was moderated by SHRM Foundation President Wendi Safstrom.

Dr. Jay Bhatt, managing director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and the Deloitte Health Equity Institute, introduced the concept of “healthspan,” which refers to the length and quality of a person’s life span.

If workers live longer, employers have the opportunity to retain skilled, experienced staff for longer. This reduces the cost of turnover and training, and ultimately increases profits. But if workers are unhappy, overwhelmed, or burned out, then the work they do will be poor-quality, and they can actually be a detriment to their organizations. Thus, it is imperative for employers to prioritize the well-being of workers and their families across their entire life spans.

Jay Bhatt, Deloitte
Jay Bhatt, Deloitte

“If you think of your organization as a health organization … then there’s a way to think about it in terms of, ‘How do you help your workforce thrive?’ ” Bhatt said. “Employers can be the catalysts in driving the change toward living healthier years and spending less.”

He explained that health encompasses so much more than just traditional notions of physical and mental health. When employers consider the health of their employees, they should also keep in mind financial literacy, commuter benefits, and access to affordable and nutritious food—all resources that can be summed up under the umbrella of wellness.

“Health equity can’t be a side gig or a side hustle—it must be embedded” in organizations and communities, Bhatt said.

The SHRM Foundation, the Deloitte Health Equity Institute, and the American Heart Association launched the Health Equity in the Workforce Initiative in 2023 with the goal of enabling positive health outcomes for 10 million U.S. workers by 2025.

A key part of this work is reducing employees’ stress.

“I don’t care how much money you have—stress keeps us all up,” said Gerald E. Johnson II, executive vice president for health equity and chief diversity officer at the American Heart Association. “But it’s exacerbated in the people we want to work with here,” namely members of the workforce who earn less than the national median income and who are thus at a greater risk for negative health outcomes.

He urged session attendees to imagine what would be possible if everyone had optimal health. Improving workers’ overall health is both a moral imperative (the right thing to do) and a business imperative (the smart thing to do).

Gerald E. Johnson II, American Heart Association
Gerald E. Johnson II, American Heart Association

Workforce health equity is “every employee having a fair and just opportunity to reach their highest level of health and well-being,” Johnson said. “No matter who you are or where you are, you have the right to achieve your highest level of health and well-being.”

Subha Barry, president of inclusion and talent services provider Seramount, offered examples of resources that companies can provide to their employees and strategies they can adopt to improve the success of their health benefits. These include telehealth, employee resource groups, flexible work options, and mental health care.

What is most important is understanding the needs of your specific workforce, which “sets a tone in the organization that allows you to feel like this organization cares about me,” said Barry, who is also a member of the SHRM Foundation Board of Directors. When you are considering adding a new benefit or expanding an existing offering, “look at the data, look at the numbers, and look at who it’s going to help and how it’s going to help.”

Strong benefits that reflect what workers actually want and will use are crucial for attracting new employees and retaining the ones you already have on staff. Money spent on benefits often flows back to the company in the form of metrics such as improved efficiency and decreased turnover, buoyed by workers’ good health and reduced stress.

“How can we create workplaces where all employees—regardless of their personal characteristics, their circumstances, their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation—can find equal access to health care and health care benefits and in an environment in which they are encouraged to actually use it?” Barry asked.

Subha Barry, Seramount
Subha Barry, Seramount

The first step is assessing whether your organization is actually discussing these issues. Determine who is responsible for these efforts and how they can be funded. Embed health equity into the strategic plan of your organization, Johnson recommended.

Additionally, ensure that the benefits you offer are genuinely accessible to your workers. Do they know what benefits are available to them? Do they understand how to access their benefits? Can they afford to use their benefits? For example, health insurance is only useful for employees if they can afford the co-pays they have to make to receive care.

“The problem is bigger than us,” Johnson acknowledged, “but we also have to recognize that we can do something. Make sure your company is leaning in on the issues that are important to them. Doing nothing is not an answer.”


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