How Benefit Programs Can Support Health Equity

Benefit programs have the potential to advance health equity in the workplace, a vision which is often not seen or supported by companies.

Employers have a wide range of resources available, from medical insurance to hybrid work models, that contribute to the health and wellbeing of their employees. While many companies take advantage of these initiatives, taking the next step is crucial to achieve true health equity.

Focusing on and expanding certain programs, such as educational assistance and parental leave, can significantly impact racial and gender gaps in the workforce — and in turn allow for health equity to flourish.

What is Health Equity and Why is It Important?

Health equity is achieved in the workplace when every employee has a fair opportunity to reach their full health potential, and no one is at a disadvantage to reach this potential due to their socioeconomic status, race, sexuality or other circumstance.

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company, Black, Latinx, Asian and LGBTQ+ individuals were less likely to report that they received the care they needed. These individuals also were reported to be more likely to consider switching employers due to benefits in comparison to the overall employee population.

Striving to support health equity among employees not only improves the quality of life and productivity of the workforce, but also improves employee retention, breaks generational cycles among families and helps create a more fair and just society.

Benefit Programs and How They Can Support Health Equity

The main types of benefit programs in the workplace are medical insurance, life and disability insurance, retirement income plan benefits, paid time off benefits and educational assistance programs. While not all institutions offer each of these programs, employees are often able to choose more than one program to customize to their needs, typically sponsored by their employer.

  • Medical insurance provides coverage for health emergencies, pre-defined to specific injuries, accidents and illnesses. White adults are more likely to be insured than Black or Latinx adults, with a 5.3 and 16.7 percentage point gap, respectively. When employers offer medical insurance, all employees have access to the same type and quality of care, which they might not have had access to outside of employment. Increasing coverage and providing assistance to employees with special needs can help diminish inequity.
  • Life insurance provides income for the family of the insured’s expenses if the insured dies, and disability insurance provides income if the insured can no longer work due to illness or injury. Life and disability insurance are typically bundled as one benefit. Similar to medical insurance, the racial gap persists in life and disability insurance, which can be combatted with a more inclusive approach to the coverage an employee can obtain.
  • Retirement benefits provide an income to a retired employee, usually in monthly installments, to secure the retiree’s future after employment. However, the median retirement savings for households between ages 25 and 61 is $79,500 for Whites, $67,025 for Asian Americans, $29,200 for Blacks and $23,000 for Latinx. Closing the racial gap in retirement savings is necessary for achieving health equity. Incentives can be offered to employers for providing retirement accounts for their employees, and employers can focus on eliminating racial pay gaps in their workplace.
  • Paid time off (PTO) policies provide employees with a pool of hours that an employee can use to take leave from work while being paid. PTO helps employees maintain their work-life balance and supports their mental health, which combats burnout or lack of productivity. Workplaces can encourage employees to use their PTO by incentivizing or mandating their unplugged hours. Employers should also keep PTO policies inclusive and flexible, particularly for employees from different cultural backgrounds that observe holidays outside of the federal calendar.
  • Educational assistance programs can provide compensation for an employee’s educational expenses, tuition reductions, scholarship grants or assistance with student loan repayment. Helping employees with their tuition costs or loan repayment can support health equity, as it directly affects gender and racial disparity in higher education: people with student debt are more likely to be women and people of color. 14% of White adults have student debt, compared to 24% of Black adults. Similarly, 19% of women have student debt, compared to 11% of men. Providing assistance to underrepresented groups is crucial to achieve both health and pay equity.

While having an array of benefits for employees to choose from is important to achieve health equity, McKinsey & Company’s survey proved that it isn’t enough. Employers should also make sure these benefits are easy to access, understand and use by all employees.

It’s impossible for health equity in a workplace to exist if all employees aren’t given fair opportunities to understand the benefits that are offered to them. Meetings on the topic, emails with sufficient information and access to one-on-one calls are all ways employers can ensure needs are met.

Expanding Benefit Programs to Address Pandemic Disruptions and SDoH

To further support health equity, employers can expand their benefit programs to adjust to the needs of their employees, especially when accounting for the ways the pandemic has disrupted their work-life balance.

By examining someone’s environment, access to care and other factors that play into their health, researchers have been able to look at lived experience through the lens of what they often call social determinants of health (SDoH).

Providing support for flexible hours and remote work, mental health, pay equity and child and senior care can also contribute to an environment where health equity thrives.

Flexible hours and remote work have proven to be a necessary adjustment with the pandemic. While some employees prefer to return to the office, either full-time or hybrid, others aren’t comfortable or simply don’t have the option.

For those that moved to other states or countries during the pandemic, working from the office is impossible, and maintaining the same hours might not be sustainable in different time zones. Offering flexible hours and a remote or hybrid environment can support health equity through easing stress related to workplace expectations and by allowing employees to work during the hours that make the most sense for them.

While the pandemic has caused children to attend school online and seniors to move in with their family, parents have experienced more pressure to spend their time and energy on dependents rather than work. By offering child and senior care benefits, employers can help their employees from spreading themselves too thin. Benefits can include resources to find care, cash subsidies and in-person care facilities for employees that work from the office.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, leaving the labor force to take care of children’s schooling from home and seniors. Child and senior care benefits are the first step to relieving the pressure on women, but for those who have left work, it isn’t enough. Providing a re-entry program for women returning to the workforce can alleviate the stress of taking the first steps and policies for additional or flexible parental leave can help adjust the work-life balance.

Mental health has always been crucial to include when discussing health equity but has been significantly amplified with the pandemic. Lack of support for an employee’s mental health can lead to burnout or leaving the workforce entirely. With mental health benefits, employers can offer referrals for specialized care, access to licensed professional counselors and other resources to support their well-being.

A blanket approach to benefit programs isn’t enough to support health equity. Benefit programs need to have the flexibility to be tailored to an individual’s specific needs. Understanding and attempting to account for SDoH can help employers understand how to be inclusive and in turn can advance health equity in the workplace.