According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 6 in 10 Americans live with at least one chronic disease. And, nearly 90% of the nation’s $3.8 trillion in annual healthcare expenditures goes toward treating chronic and mental health care conditions.1 This week’s blog explores how organizations can support employees with chronic health conditions and why it’s so important to focus on this segment of the population.
What is a chronic disease?
According to the CDC, a chronic disease lasts more than one year and requires ongoing medical treatment. Common chronic diseases include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, lung disease, kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s. Many of these chronic conditions are caused and exacerbated by certain lifestyle behaviors, like smoking, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and excessive alcohol consumption.
Supporting populations with chronic conditions—a benefit for both employees and organizations.
Medical experts agree we are likely to continue to see an increase in the prevalence of chronic conditions among Americans. And, we don’t yet know whether the long-term effects of COVID-19 will eventually be added to the list.
So, it’s clear that employers will need to continue to aid employees in this space. Here’s why it’s in their best interest to do so:
- Reduced absenteeism/presenteeism. Studies show that when organizations invest in well-being programs, absenteeism costs fall.
- Greater talent attraction and retention. What does well-being mean to employees these days? A lot. In fact, it can influence the decision to stay with a company or join a new organization. Providing resources to manage health issues and overall well-being could be a differentiator.
- Increased productivity and engagement. A 2019 study by Optum® and the National Business Group on Health found that investment in multiple dimensions of well-being is correlated with high levels of employee productivity, loyalty, and employee well-being.
- Reduced healthcare claims. A recent study showed that lifestyle changes offer potential savings in “avoided discrete medical costs.” Plus, as we’ve long maintained, there are benefits of focusing on employee well-being that can’t be easily quantified—many of which are listed above.
We know that supporting people with chronic conditions benefits both the employee and the organization. But how, exactly, should employers go about helping their staff manage their health? We have a few ideas.
How to support your employees with chronic conditions.
Leverage the tools in your well-being platform.
Your well-being platform includes many tools that can help this population.
- Personalized health coaching is one of the most effective tools for managing a chronic condition. At WebMD Health Services, participants partner with certified health coaches who provide the structure, support, and motivation to help people keep chronic conditions under control through diet, exercise, medication adherence, and mental health strategies.
- Condition-specific programs, like our Daily Habits program, give people actionable tools to manage heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease and make lifestyle modifications like quitting tobacco. The programs divide a health goal into small, manageable actions each day to increase the likelihood of forming healthy, long-lasting habits.
- Incentives are a great way to get employees with chronic conditions to engage with your well-being program. For example, you might provide an incentive for signing up with a health coach, or tie the incentive to achieving an improved health indicator, like a healthy blood sugar range.
- Wellness challenges promote a culture of well-being with a bit of healthy competition, and are another way to get employees with chronic conditions engaged. Whether it’s a group step challenge or an individual challenge focused on stress reduction, challenges give participants the structure and support to make positive changes over time—all while having a bit of fun.
Consider how medical plans play a role.
Look at your health plans and other benefits to see if they offer support for chronic conditions.
- Leverage disease management programs. These programs help members understand and manage their condition, and may even include high-touch services like counseling or on-call nurse-lines.2 Encourage employees to participate if they are contacted by their health plan.
- Continue to offer telemedicine. Online doctor visits remain popular and convenient for those who need to stay connected to their doctor and adhere to a treatment plan.
- Give guidance for choosing a health plan. Many companies offer consumer-driven health plans, which feature low premiums but high deductibles. These may not be the best option for employees who are heavy healthcare users. Use good communication to ensure employees know exactly what they are signing up for during your annual enrollment. Consider having someone from the health plan speak about the offerings in a company-wide meeting to help employees choose a plan that matches their needs.
Equip managers with the right resources.
Before a manager can offer assistance to an employee affected with a chronic condition, the employee needs to feel comfortable even bringing it up.
This starts with leadership. Modeling healthy behaviors—like taking time off, setting boundaries, and talking openly about physical and mental health—sends the message to employees that health is a priority in the workplace.
To allow managers to respond quickly with empathy and action when an employee opens up, provide training to:
- Increase awareness of common chronic diseases and what an employee might be going through.
- Work with the employee to make sure they have the flexibility to go to the doctor or manage flare-ups.
- Ensure managers know how to help, for example, which actions can they approve on their own—like working from home—and what they’ll need to involve HR for, like disability leave.
- Reassess working conditions and flexibility. This might mean working from home permanently or a few days a week, or limiting certain job functions like heavy lifting or sitting/standing too long.
Of course, no discussion of chronic disease would be complete without a message about prevention. Lifestyle modifications—quitting tobacco, eating more nutritious foods, being physically active—continue to be the best way to keep chronic conditions from developing in the first place. So, if you have a well-being program, you’re one step ahead: leverage the program to help those who are managing conditions now, and use it to aid others in preventing future disease.