More Than a Paycheck: How Innovative Workplaces Can Address the Social Determinants of Health to Drive Well-Being

By Jess Maynard for Spring Health

When essential needs are unmet, employee well-being is deeply impacted. Explore how forward-thinking workplaces can transform lives by addressing the social determinants of health.

Do you know how many of your employees are silently struggling to meet their most essential needs? If you’re an HR or People leader, I know you care.

Imagine getting home after a long day at work and being unsure if you can afford to buy food for dinner. For some employees, “home” might even be their car. 

Consider how it might feel to constantly worry about whether you’ll be able to pay rent, repeatedly calculating costs on pieces of paper throughout the work day, trying to make the math work.

Imagine struggling with your mental health and not speaking to another person for days, feeling completely alone.

These snapshots are a true slice of reality for many people, including those who work for your organization. Almost half of adults, across incomes, have at least one unmet essential need.

Addressing essential needs is an overlooked workplace issue

Contrary to common belief, employment doesn’t always ensure essential needs are met. For many employees, additional factors play a significant role. 

Unmet needs often result from health disparities, costing the U.S. $473 billion in excess medical spending this year. Individuals with unmet essential needs are:

  • 2.5 times more likely to report poor physical health and go without needed healthcare
  • Over five times more likely to report mental health challenges
  • More than twice as likely to report higher healthcare utilization
  • More than 2.4 times more likely to miss six-plus days of work in the past year

There’s a clear connection between the environments and conditions in which people live, health equity, and employee well-being. What impact do unmet needs have on your workplace? 

Connecting the dots: social needs and employee well-being

The social determinants of health (SDOH) is a well-established and powerful concept that is a shorthand way of discussing how our environments shape our well-being. This term serves as a gateway to understanding our living conditions’ profound impact on health outcomes, quality of life, daily functioning, and exposure to health risks.

A substantial body of research indicates that the SDOH can influence health outcomes by as much as 80% and is also closely linked with health equity. 

Someone who lives in a polluted environment without access to quality food or healthcare doesn’t have the same starting point for optimal health and well-being as someone who has access to great healthcare, education, and a strong community.

We can break down the SDOH into five categories while acknowledging that they are interconnected and overlap:

  1. Economic stability
  2. Education access and quality
  3. Healthcare access and quality
  4. Neighborhood and built environment
  5. Social and community context

Can you think about how these factors affect you and the people in your organization?

The lived realities of people with unmet needs

When we think about whether a person’s essential needs are met—food, housing, and transportation—we might ask some of the following questions:

  • Are they able to get enough healthy food?
  • Do they have a stable place to live?
  • Can they get to work, the doctor, and the grocery store?
  • Can they afford childcare?

People’s needs also include social connection, so we might ask: 

  • Do they have healthy relationships with family and friends? 
  • How much time are they spending alone? 

Isolation has risks similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is associated with higher risks of dementia, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

There are many examples of how the SDOH impacts people’s lives in various contexts. 

Let’s consider what happens when a person’s essential needs go unmet and how this manifests in physical and mental health.

Essential needs are closely tied in with physical and mental health

More than 45 percent of healthcare consumers experience at least one unmet essential need. People with chronic mental and/or physical health conditions and unmet needs experience higher healthcare utilization and worse clinical outcomes. 

There are clear implications for physical and mental health for a large portion of the population.

What might this look like for your employees?

An individual managing diabetes and anxiety is likely going to have worse clinical outcomes if they don’t have stable housing, aren’t able to afford or access healthy food and live in an environment that’s polluted by local industry.

This connection makes sense, right? 

Going without essential needs makes managing everything else more difficult, especially physical and mental health. So, let’s consider ways employers might partner with their employees, onsite care teams, and community advocates to address this common reality.

A holistic approach to meeting essential needs

First, addressing essential needs through a holistic approach to employee well-being is key. 

What might this holistic support look like? An employer with a comprehensive mental health solution might integrate:

  1. Additional questions on the initial assessment screening for social needs such as food security, social support, and housing.
  2. Results are shared with the member’s care team.
  3. Providing recommendations based on the results for local resources.
  4. Connecting employees with over 500,000 community-vetted resources through self-service options.
  5. Reporting on trends and utilization data so the employer knows whether members are getting the necessary resources.
  6. Reporting correlations between meeting essential needs and productivity, absenteeism, and clinical outcomes.

Onsite care teams strengthen well-being

Another holistic strategy might include an embedded workplace care team as one way to proactively address employees’ unmet essential needs. 

A care team might be composed of Community Care Advocates—dedicated mental health professionals with social work experience—who can:

  • Utilize data to assess employees’ social needs (food, housing, transportation)
  • Connect them with community resources and employer benefits
  • Provide ongoing support and follow-up, in person or virtually 
  • Help the employee determine eligibility for community resources

Benefits of community care advocates for employees

Community Care Advocates could also help employees connect with essential resources and support. For example, an employee experiencing domestic violence may be struggling to secure housing and, therefore, can’t leave a dangerous situation. A care team member could help them connect with a local domestic violence shelter for support and housing.

Another employee with a chronic disease may need to attend doctor’s appointments but can’t find childcare or afford to buy healthy food to manage the disease better. 

A Community Care Advocate might help that individual find childcare, sign up for income-assisted childcare benefits, connect them with a local food bank, and coordinate transportation.

Every individual’s circumstances are unique. Addressing the SDOH via a one-size-fits-all solution leaves many people falling through the cracks. Navigating complicated requirements for local services can also be frustrating, especially for people just trying to meet their essential needs.

Building health equity by creating community

This model of workplace support, which helps employees embed more deeply in their communities, offers a useful perspective on employee well-being, addressing something that’s often overlooked.

Starting this process where people work while expanding the support base to the local areas where people live creates a sense of shared community.

By addressing health equity, we fulfill a moral and social imperative and foster a thriving workforce. When employees’ essential needs are met, they’re better equipped to face life’s challenges, contribute meaningfully at work, and maintain their health. 

This approach leads to reduced healthcare costs and more resilient, engaged employees, which is a moral and financial win for individuals and organizations.

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