Fortune Well August 6, 2023
Andrew Davis, an actuary at global financial services firm Deloitte, makes a comfortable living. But he might not have thought of outfitting his 62-acre plot of land near Clear Lake, Minn., with a solar generator—or planting a fruit orchard there—without the company’s well-being subsidy.
The benefit allows employees up to $1,000 annually for items that can improve their health and wellness. It covers the obvious, like gym memberships. But it can also be used for purchases that improve mental health, like musical instruments, and items that nurture the earth, like solar panels.
For Davis, Deloitte has chipped in on a family karaoke setup, green fees for golf with his dad, and books to inform his next project: establishing a chicken farm.
The subsidy has opened his eyes to opportunities for “emotional health” and made them a reality without requiring him to sacrifice in other areas. His sustainable acreage—with company-funded improvements—has become a place that makes Davis feel “like a great human being” in his off time, he tells Fortune. He says tending to the land with his wife and children is “an amazing feeling.”
Health care is a key employee benefit in the U.S. Could “wellness care” become one, too? There’s a growing awareness among business leaders, public health officials, and physicians that employers can dramatically affect our quality—and perhaps even length—of life. Companies that take responsibility seriously are likely to benefit from a more productive, dedicated workforce—and employees who may work longer before retirement.
Right now, the average American lives just 76 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the shortest lifespan the country has seen since 1996. And it has declined from a peak of 78.9 years in 2014, owing in large part to COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths. What’s more, only 85% of those years are spent in good health, according to a report by Deloitte released in June.
This needn’t be, the report contends. On average, Americans could live to nearly 90—with up to 95% of those years in good health—and spend less on health care, too. Life span could increase by an average of 12 years, and health span—or the number of years a person spends in good health—by 19 years by 2040.
To be sure, a lot of things would have to go right to make this extended life span vision come true. But employers are uniquely positioned to drive this change, in a way sectors like public health and health care are not, says Dr. Asif Dhar, vice chair and life sciences and health care industry leader at Deloitte and a co-author of the report.
His team looked at all potential players, including medtech and financial services firms, community-based organizations, and the government. One major reason employers came out on top: More than half of U.S. residents were covered by company-provided health insurance in 2021.
Dr. Lee Newman, director of the Colorado School of Public Health’s Center for Health, Work, and Environment, says Deloitte is onto something: If employers promote worker health and safety, “we can improve both employer and employee outcomes.”
The report is a nod to the concept of “total worker health,” first coined by the CDC about a decade ago, he tells Fortune.
Under the concept, “employers need to make sure employees are safe on the job,” Newman says. But they must also address the health and well-being of employees so they can leave “their shift maybe a little healthier than when they started.”
The notion is taking off across industries, he asserts. At a recent meeting with chiefs of environmental health for 30 major corporations, “almost every one of them had begun developing, or had developed a total worker health approach.”
During the height of COVID, employers grew accustomed to communicating with workers about health, for the sake of workforce resilience. Post-pandemic, some are wondering if the same approach should be applied more broadly.
In the world of public health, external factors that influence the health of a population are referred to as social determinants of health. The workplace is one of them, as both Dhar and Newman point out. Deloitte’s report takes the concept a step further, asserting that all companies with employees are healthcare companies, regardless of the industry they exist in.
To facilitate widespread gains in life span and health span, the private sector must “move toward a system that celebrates wellness,” Dhar says. Doing so is a potential win for employers and employees alike. Physically and emotionally healthy workers are generally more productive and creative—and if they live longer, they may work longer before retiring.
What’s more, many employers are self-insured, meaning they have a “huge amount to gain” financially by promoting illness prevention, Dhar says. Cancer and many other chronic conditions are far easier—and less expensive—to treat in the early stages.
Cost savings aside, offering wellness benefits can give employers a competitive advantage, according to Dhar and Davis, another coauthor of the report.
The well-being subsidy is “one of the more talked-about benefits within my team,” Davis says, adding that he feels it has aided with retention. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool to instill [into] a culture.”
There are no reliable data on what percentage of companies offer wellness benefits—in part because there’s no standard definition of what a wellness benefit is, Newman says. Deloitte has practiced what its report preaches for a while; the consulting firm has offered a well-being subsidy for nearly two decades and doubled it last year.
When it comes to designing such benefits, “one size does not fit all,” Dhar asserts. Each employer has a group of workers with unique tendencies toward illness. Office workers are more prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, while those who work with chemicals may be at increased risk for asthma and/or cancer.
What’s more, employers may be based in communities with attributes that affect health, and those attributes should help shape company policies. Is a business located in a food desert? Are recreational spaces plentiful? “You may not want to give every employee Rollerblades if there are no paved ways around for them to skate on,” Dhar advises.
Newman encourages employers to provide access to CDC-supported, evidence-based programs that help workers and their families identify and manage chronic conditions like diabetes early on. But even the best of wellness programs are no substitute for quality leadership that ensures employers aren’t causing mental and stress-related health issues, he cautions.
“Think about the times you’ve had a toxic boss, someone costing you sleep,” he says. “If we move upstream and think about how to have businesses treat workers in a way that improves the workplace itself, we have another great tool for improving people’s longevity and well-being.”
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