The Covid-19 pandemic cast light on many different shortcomings in how we live today and how we organise our societies. One of them is that there are serious health inequities. Marginalised communities saw far higher rates of Covid-19 infection and mortality than anyone else. Among studies that looked at the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 in the whole population, Black people were 1.5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital than the white majority. Indigenous people were 1.9 times more likely. Hispanic people were 1.3 times more likely.
These inequities existed long before the pandemic. And though we can’t wave a magic wand and banish them from our society right this minute, employers have the power to address them in the workplace and make a meaningful difference to health outcomes. And there is a business case for this as well as one rooted in a desire for social justice. Just as more diverse workforces and senior teams outperform their less diverse counterparts, both in terms of innovation and profitability, organisations that put health equity high on the agenda benefit. They attract more talent, drawing those who want to work for employers that take care of them. They have fewer absences (and therefore lose less money in absenteeism); health equity naturally means a healthier workforce. That means greater productivity, too. The European Parliament estimates losses linked to health inequities cost close to €980 billion per year within the EU, while in the U.S., inequities cost approximately $320 billion annually.
Get to know your team
So how can employers advance health equity? First, by getting to know your employee population. All effective action starts with having the right information; if you don’t have a deep understanding of your organisation, then any changes you make will be suboptimal at best. This is one reason why certain organisations feel underwhelmed by the progress of their DEI strategies: they’ve imposed one-size-fits-all plans in a top-down fashion. What businesses always need to do is take the time to develop tailored plans – ones right for their unique context.
So do your research. Get to know the people in your organisation. Invite them to talk. Use surveys to gather data and build a business case to convince any sceptics in the leadership. Strive to build up a vivid picture of your workforce; to move beyond equality to equity, you need to understand the individuals who make up your team. The richer and clearer the picture you create, the more effective your interventions will be.
Scrutinise your healthcare offering
Now you know your organisation, you need to familiarise yourself with your healthcare offering. A rising number of businesses in the UK are able to offer their employees private health insurance, but that doesn’t mean that all employers understand what that entitles them to. There may be language barriers that prevent certain members of your team from fully comprehending your healthcare offering, for example. A 2021 McKinsey study found that employees of colour were up to 1.5 times more likely than white employees to find the resources and tools explaining benefits unhelpful, regardless of what their income was. It’s also worth making sure that you’re set up to cater to both mental and physical health needs. Historically, the latter has been put ahead of the former.
Start to fill in the gaps
There will be areas where you can improve. That’s normal. And these gaps can take many forms. There can be knowledge gaps. There can be engagement gaps. And there can be gaps in what you offer. Individuals and groups within your organisation will have different needs, and these should be respected. One organisation may have a large population of younger LGBTQ+ employees. Another may have an older, Hispanic population. Both of these groups will have health support needs in common. But they will also have needs that are different. And within these groups there will be diversity, too. Equity is all about catering your offering to the individual, not making the individual cater to your offering.
Advancing health equity can be daunting. There’s a lot to consider, from annual leave allowance to fertility treatment assistance to mental health support for LGBTQ+ employes. So break it down into chunks – getting to know the team, scrutinising your offering, and then filling in the gaps – makes it manageable.
Health equity is something all organisations should strive to achieve. There’s an economic imperative – and a moral one.