Physical well-being in the workplace: An equity perspective

November 29, 2022 · NCQA Communications

By Neepa Patel, CEO of WellRight, and Vanessa Guzman, president of SmartRise Health

We know our physical well-being is extremely important to our health, happiness, and productivity. And we’re beginning to prioritize it more than ever — a 2021 McKinsey survey of consumers found a “substantial” increase in wellness prioritization from the last three years.

Organizations are also prioritizing their employees’ health and fitness. When employees are sick and miss days or are feeling unwell at work, it hurts productivity and drives up the cost of providing healthcare coverage.

Over the last several decades, employers have applied different tactics to support their workforce’s physical health. But the downfall for most of these programs is that they are built on an equality basis, offering one-size-fits-all support and education to employees. While these programs may meet the needs of some or even most employees, it may miss the mark with significant parts of the employee base — including those employees that may need support the most.

Programs that are not tailored to meet employee needs can yield low participation and a lower return on investment for the employers that offer them. And employees’ needs are changing, with the rise of remote and hybrid jobs and an increasing comfortability with digital wellness apps and tools.

Physical well-being programs need to change to meet new needs. The next evolution of these programs should focus on providing value to all employees by building them on the foundation of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Equality versus equity

Everyone has different health needs and requires different levels of support to get and stay physically healthy. The COVID-19 pandemic made this painfully obvious as different racial, ethnic, and social groups were hit harder by the virus than others, uncovering existing health disparities and bringing them to the forefront.

An equitably built workplace wellness program takes into consideration those differences and truly works to level the playing field. Such a program also addresses social determinants of health, the economic and social conditions that influence well-being. Addressing these needs can create space for employees to prioritize their health.

Traditional workplace offerings that bolster physical health aren’t necessarily equitably accessible to all employees. For example, an on-site gym isn’t attractive to remote or hybrid employees, and walking challenges may not gain participants if employees don’t have safe spaces to walk or cannot walk. Similarly, a nutrition program could fall flat because it doesn’t include recipes that reflect the culture and traditions of the workforce being served.

What an equitable physical wellness program looks like

Step one to making a more equitable physical wellness program is to look at available data to better inform offerings based on an aggregated view of the employee population. Health plan data can inform which chronic conditions are prevalent in the workforce. Other types of help information in areas such as members’ socioeconomic status and demographics can also provide meaningful information.

Incorporating a health risk assessment into a well-being program can also give more nuanced information on which chronic conditions may need more focus.

Every workplace’s physical well-being program should reflect their individual employees, but in general, here are things that a DEI-focused program would include:

  • Corporate partnerships that provide discounts to healthy food, exercise programs, and health club memberships
  • Programs addressing healthy eating, exercise, and sleep
  • Personalized educational material for chronic or high-cost conditions
  • Treatment decision support
  • Navigation support when accessing healthcare services
  • Flexible time off to see doctor, complete a telehealth visit, or have a mental health day
  • Access to wellness and meditation hotlines during work hours
  • Digital access to a wellness platform

Physical health is the basis for everything else. When employers have equitable programs supporting their workforce’s well-being, they give each employee a strong base upon which they can build the rest of their lives.

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