A Case for Health Literacy in the Workplace

By Allison Barkel

Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” by The Health Literacy Solution Center. It is a growing concern in the United States that has been increasingly fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and health access inequities. In fact, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies, the annual cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is estimated at $238 billion. This issue drives the question: who is responsible for increasing health literacy? While this is certainly a public health issue, there is a huge opportunity for employers to become champions of health literacy within the workplace.

You might be wondering, why would employers have a responsibility in personal decisions such as health literacy and personal wellness? Many studies have shown that individuals with lower health literacy have overall worse health outcomes resulting in higher healthcare costs. Lower health literacy can be tied to higher likelihood of hospitalization, worsened diseases and less likely to take advantage of preventative care. All of this ultimately results in an increase in chronic disease, including cancer and diabetes. This ultimately affects employees’ productivity, attendance and the company’s bottom line. 

An employee spends more time at work than almost anywhere else. Employers invest in employee healthcare benefits and a focus on health literacy can reinforce the investment they are making in their employees’ health. By better understanding their personal health, employees are able to identify risks and seek preventative care when possible. 

So, what can employers do to increase employee health literacy?

Promoting health literacy within your organization:
  • 1. Understanding Your Population’s Needs

    Facilitate a needs assessment to better understand patterns in your employees’ healthy or unhealthy behavior, feelings regarding their personal health and patterns in illness or disease. Use this information to guide your approach to and prioritization of health literacy. 

  • 2. Communicate Benefits Regularly

    While annual benefits season often gets the primary focus on health care options, this should be a year-round process. Remind employees of their coverage, copays and preventive care options to encourage them to take advantage of their plans.

  • 3.  Provide Credible Sources

    Whether you invite an expert to your office or share articles of health-related information, make sure that the source is credible by verifying credentials of expertise. Misinformation and distrust of the healthcare system has become particularly pervasive as a result of the pandemic.

  • 4.  Meet People Where They Are

    There is a lot of mistrust of the medical system, personal discomfort and vulnerability related to people’s health. Recognize that employees will all be in different places, and be patient with people’s growth. Always regard health-related topics as a journey so that people aren’t discouraged to try.

While health literacy can seem like a daunting ask for employees to make an investment in, it is clear that the return will speak for itself. Having healthier, more productive employees, and committed employees will ultimately create a culture where health is prioritized. 

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