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COVID-19 and social drivers of workforce health

Woman working at her desk while wearing a disposable mask

COVID-19 has put a global spotlight on social drivers of health. Vulnerable employees are more likely to experience the adverse health and economic effects of COVID-19 — and the pandemic has introduced new challenges for many employees who are now struggling to get their basic needs met. It’s more important than ever for employers to help address the social and economic needs of their entire workforce.

Social drivers of health (also known as social determinants of health) are the conditions in which people live, work, and play. For example, things like access to nutritious food, a place to live, and equitable health care are social drivers of health. These factors account for up to 40% of employee health outcomes — and have a direct impact on workforce health and productivity.1

Social drivers account for 40% of health outcomes: 10% physical environment, 20% health care, 30% behaviors, 40% socioeconomic factors

How can businesses address employees’ social health needs?

You’re in a unique position to help address the social drivers of health affecting your employees — and make a positive impact on their health, job performance, and overall wellness.

COVID-19 brought challenges that go beyond physical health:

Transportation, housing, food, finances, discrimination, physical safety, social connections, technology access, child/elder care, job security

Use reporting to gather insights

Anticipate and identify your employees’ potential social needs by looking into your demographic and utilization data to find out:

  • The percentage of employees who request early paycheck release or access their 401(k)/retirement funds early
  • Trends in requests for time off, vacation days, or flexible work schedules
  • Trends in the use of child care and elder care benefits
  • The types of unmet social needs your employees share with wellness champions, unions, and employee resource groups
  • Employee assistance program (EAP) utilization and the types of assistance needed

Employees may be struggling more than you know. 3 in 5 adults have at least 1 unmet social need.

Offer and promote available resources

When employees are aware of what’s available, they’re more likely to engage — and take advantage of support that can make a meaningful difference in their lives.

  • Optimize EAP services — Communicate what’s offered, including work-life balance resources like referrals to legal services, day care, etc.
  • Offer financial services — Highlight the counseling services for things like debt management and budgeting that may be available through local banks or your financial vendors. Consider hosting webinars.
  • Promote community resources — Share self-serve platforms like 211 or
  • Consider extra help for employees in need — Try to anticipate the needs of vulnerable populations, workers returning to work after furlough, and those earning lower wages.

Promote telehealth to help remove barriers to care

Managing chronic conditions and keeping up with preventive care is more important than ever. Telehealth can help alleviate some of the challenges employees face in staying on top of their health care needs by:

  • Lowering care costs and increasing engagement
  • Enabling people to access care without needing transportation
  • Reducing time away from work or home, where people may be caring for children or elderly parents
  • Helping members avoid expensive, unnecessary emergency room and urgent care visits
  • Helping to address preexisting medical conditions in the most vulnerable populations

Did you know?

During the pandemic, Kaiser Permanente members from underserved neighborhoods adopted telehealth at a higher rate than members in less-deprived areas. Today, both use telehealth at about the same rate.2

Support working parents with school-age children

Working parents are juggling a lot. Ask your employees with kids what kind of support they need most, and partner with stakeholders in your organization to figure out what you can quickly operationalize. Some ideas for how you can support working parents include:

  • Enacting core hours and/or no-meeting days and offering flexible work schedules
  • Considering paid family care days and implementing or expanding backup care benefits
  • Offering on-site or near-site child care services (in line with federal and local guidelines) to both in-person and remote employees
  • Helping employees navigate leave-of-absence policies and adjusting them as necessary to meet their needs

Engage with your community

Get involved in community projects where your employees live and where your business is physically located. Identify the top counties or ZIP codes where your employees live, and target your charitable giving and philanthropy efforts to supporting resources in those communities. Corporate volunteerism also increases employee satisfaction and provides a personal sense of fulfillment — so, consider organizing a volunteer activity where employees can give back and support their community as a team.

Addressing social drivers of health can help employees and businesses thrive

Understanding social drivers of health allows you to see the bigger picture of your employees’ health — and take meaningful actions to help meet the social needs of your workforce. This can make a positive difference in overall workforce health and boost employee productivity and engagement — both during the pandemic and over the long term. For employers committed to creating a true culture of health, it’s clear that social drivers of health need to be a part of the conversation.

Find resources to support employees >

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1“County Health Rankings Model,” University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute,, accessed August 10, 2021.
2Kaiser Permanente Utility for Care Data Analysis and Center for Effectiveness and Safety Research, July 14, 2020.