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How Social Determinants of Health Impact Wellness Programs

There are many factors that affect our health. We know that eating well, exercising, and seeing a doctor when we are sick are simple steps that we can take to keep ourselves healthy, but our health is also affected by access to social and economic opportunities. Social determinants of health include the following factors:

  • Socioeconomic status

  • Education

  • Neighborhood (zip code)

  • Physical environment

  • Employment

  • Social networks

  • Access to care

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Poverty limits access to healthy foods and safe neighborhoods and more education is a predictor of better health. We also know that differences in health are striking in communities with poor social determinants of health, such as unstable housing, low income, unsafe neighborhoods, or substandard education.”

Addressing social determinants of health is important for improving health and reducing health disparities. Studies propose that health behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and social and economic factors are the main drivers of health outcomes, and that social and economic factors can shape individuals’ health behaviors. Not only are social determinants of health important factors that affect overall health, but addressing them can also help reduce health disparities that are often rooted in social and economic disadvantages.

Education is Key

I grew up with my grandparents in a low income community where nutrition wasn’t a high priority. As is the case with many low income families, my grandparents did not really know enough about proper nutrition or how to create a healthy living environment to equip me with the proper resources for leading a healthy lifestyle.

How do we change this? I believe the key is education. When I was 18 years old, a friend took the time to show me how to eat healthy and why it’s important to exercise. I was able to change my nutrition and start engaging in regular physical exercise, which improved my overall wellbeing and enhanced my enthusiasm for living a healthy lifestyle. This friend is the reason I got into the corporate health world. Every time I make a nutrient-packed smoothie or go for a jog, I thank that friend. Thanks to that introduction to healthy living, I devoted my career to creating those opportunities for others.

Reaching out to those individuals who need educational resources can create positive change in the health of any employee population. The most effective and successful benefits programs are only further enhanced by education—both for leadership and employees. Through regular communication, give your employees tips on leading a healthy lifestyle such as balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and regular health screenings. Provide information on the effects of smoking, obesity, alcohol use, and unhealthy practices that can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress, and depression.

Understanding Your Employee Population

The success of a targeted wellness program is defined by each organization’s unique employee population. Building a successful wellness program that positively impacts the health of your employees begins with understanding their demographic makeup, baseline health status, and overall health and wellness education.

When creating wellness programs for your employees, it’s crucial to understand their living conditions, income and education levels, and access to care. Understanding the population is the first step to creating a successful targeted program. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “By working to establish workplace policies that positively influence social and economic conditions and those that support changes in individual behavior, we can improve health for large numbers of people in ways that can be sustained over time.”

Understanding the demographics of your workforce can help you determine what types of benefits will be most effective for your business and employees.

Building the Best Wellness Program for Your Employees

It’s important that you understand how your employees feel about the benefits you’re offering them so that you can continue to optimize your program over time. You can find out how your employees feel about your program by conducting surveys, analyzing provider reports, or studying provider and actuarial research. If you’re aware of what your employees like or don’t like about their benefits, you can make an effort to highlight those things in your regular communication. For example, if your plan includes a free annual biometric screening but your employees do not take advantage of it, you can include reminders in your communication program.

Learning how your employees feel about their benefits will arm you with the information you need to revise your communications to meet realistic goals and expectations, your employees’ needs, your communication plan objectives, and your business’ requirements.

Developing Healthy Partnerships

By taking the time to develop partnerships with local health vendors such as dietitians, fitness trainers, and mental health professionals, and making access to these services easy to access and understand, organizations can provide their employees with resources and services that will help them stay healthy.

Whether your company would like to add a corporate wellness program to your employee benefits plan, or would like to enhance an existing program, SWBC’s Employee Benefits Consulting Group can provide consulting services to help you design and maintain a plan that meets the requirements of your organization. We will provide the analytical support, develop custom communication materials, and assess the benefit to your company.

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Roxanne Leal

Roxanne Leal has been with SWBC since December 2019. As a Wellness Program Manager, Roxanne specializes in developing strategic wellness programs based on high cost claims, survey data and aggregate reports. Roxanne Leal has worked in the health & wellness industry for over 7 years. Prior to joining SWBC, she spent 5 years as a Wellness Program Consultant for Aetna managing Bexar County’s wellness program. She worked closely with County leadership, brokers, account management and vendors to design and deliver quality onsite wellness programming for over 4,500 employees. Roxanne graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a bachelors in Community Health. She serves on the Board of Directors for San Antonio Business Group on Health and is the Chair for the Healthy Workplace Recognition Program. In addition to her community involvement, she is on the leadership board for the Leukemia & Lymphoma society.

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