Self-imposed constraints undermine employers’ resolve to promote employee health and wellness. When employers fully accept the link between healthy employees and long-term profitability, the once insurmountable constraints can be quickly resolved.
All employers in all nations are in the health care business. The work environment they create, including the expected number of working hours and numerous other potential stressors, have a significant impact on the health and well-being of employees and their families. In addition, in the United States, the health care coverage of most workers depends in large part on the health benefits their companies offer.
A new study, based on in-depth interviews with executives in 20 companies of various sizes and from various industries, reveals the attitudes and assumptions of employers that often undermine their good-faith efforts to promote employee health. Specifically, the study reveals a disconnect between, on the one hand, the growing consensus that encouraging and enabling employee health and wellness leads to economic benefits for the company, and, on the other hand, the investment companies are willing to make in health-promoting programs and initiatives.
The employers interviewed for the study recognized their responsibility in ensuring the health of their employees, and defined health broadly in terms of physical, emotional and mental health. They launched initiatives to promote employee health, such as convening managers to communicate the importance of employee health and offering financial incentives to employees to encourage participation in health care initiatives.
However, despite their stated commitment to the health and well-being of their employees, many of these employers, the study shows, failed to sufficiently invest in employee health care because of perceived internal and external barriers. Internally, for example:
The authors of the study contend, however, that these internal barriers are self-imposed. Nothing prevents employers from changing the design of their jobs, for example, nor are they required to shift health care costs to their employees through high deductible plans. The perceived trade-off between health and profitability is also a chimera since in the long term health and well-being increases the profitability of a company.
The external constraints cited by the respondents in the study—which included a lack of innovative offerings from health care vendors, too many offerings that discouraged employees from accessing care, and lack of federal or state guidelines that could level the playing field for companies—were also self-imposed. The research showed that many companies only brought from large, well-established vendors, thus missing the innovative, health-promoting offerings from the less dominant vendors in the marketplace, for example. And those companies who complained about the uneven playing field were at the same time battling new health care regulations.
In contrast to the companies who feel their hands are tied, other companies are able to overcome these constraints. Solutions cited in the study included:
In sum, it is the philosophy of a company, not any internal or external constraints, which shape how employers promote the health of their employees. If employers believe that in the long-term, the health and well-being of their employees lead to higher productivity and higher profits, they will overcome any perceived barriers and choose to invest in better health care options—even if in the short-term they are more expensive.
Policy makers and regulatory agencies inevitably have a role to play in ensuring healthy workplaces. However, many companies can accept more responsibility employee health and well-being. To better own this responsibility, companies can:
The more companies view their financial commitment to employee health and well-being as an investment for the future rather than as current HR costs, the more they will achieve the economic benefits of a healthy workplace.
Employers’ Role in Employee Health: Why They Do What They Do. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stacie Vilendrer, Grace Joseph, BS, Jason Kim & Sara J. Singer. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (November 2020).
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