Social Determinants: How Benefits and Well-being Leaders Can Get Started


June 30, 2020

Addressing social determinants of health - the circumstances in which people are born and live - is a business and moral imperative.

Large employers can address social determinants of health by promoting changes in the communities where employees live, as well as implementing individual-level solutions to mediate the effects of community conditions that negatively affect health and well-being. While some well-being and benefits leaders may be ready and able to enact community-level changes, others may find that focusing on ways to address the social needs of employees and their families is a more natural starting point. Addressing social needs will involve identifying needs, referring employees to community resources and filling gaps with benefits and programs.

As employers continue to expand the scope of their benefits and programs to focus on multiple dimensions of well-being, the time is ripe to consider how these initiatives can meet the social needs of employees and their families. 

Identify needs, connect to resuorces, fill gaps with benefits

Identify the Social Needs of Employees

There are several ways you can begin to uncover the social factors influencing employee health and well-being:

  • Add questions on social needs to existing health or well-being assessments. Validated questionnaires exist that you may be able to draw questions from, including The Accountable Health Communities Health-Related Social Needs Screening Tool and the Protocol for Responding to and Assessing Patient Assets, Risks, and Experiences questionnaire. Assessing social needs through questionnaires may be particularly relevant for global employers, who may not have line of sight to the social challenges of their workforce.
  • Partner with organizations that provide social determinants of health analytics. These organizations include health plans, health services organizations and consulting firms, as well as organizations specifically focused on social determinants of health. They may be able to integrate multiple sources of data to paint a complete picture of the risks and opportunities that your population faces. 
  • Work with local public health departments. They may be poised to help you identify the greatest social, economic and environmental factors impacting local community health, available community resources, and importantly, insights on gaps in programs and services. 
  • Use publicly available data on social determinants. Helpful data sources may include those compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation‘s visualization tool that explores the relationships between the social determinants of health and health indicators across countries. Health plans may also have publicly available data on social determinants of health or the conditions affecting the health and well-being of individuals.
  • Hear directly from employees on their social needs and potential gaps in benefits or programs. Focus groups or discussions with employees (such as through Employee Resource Groups) may enable you to obtain deeper insights on employee needs and desires than through surveys or data analytics alone.

Identifying the social needs of employees isn’t just helpful for identifying gaps in programs and benefits, it can also inform your communication strategy. For example, social determinants of health data can help you segment your audience and tailor your messaging, thereby increasing communication relevancy for both employees and their families. 

Connect Employees with Community Resources

Leverage existing programs or offerings such as advocacy/concierge services, engagement platforms, EAPs and/or on-site clinics to refer employees to free or reduced cost social services. To create effective referral pathways, consider the following:

  • How will the program or benefit sensitively identify the social barriers employees are facing? It may be necessary to implement trainings among those interacting with employees on ways to recognize social needs and how to respond.
  • How will the program or benefit know what programs or services might be available to employees? There are publicly available, up-to-date lists of social services (e.g., Aunt Bertha) that aggregate free or low-cost programs and services and make them searchable by zip code and topic. There are also a number of companies that address social needs by coordinating referrals and care between health care and community-based organizations.
  • What mechanism will be in place to track referrals to community programs or services? Tracking referrals can help you better understand employee social needs and potential gaps in employer-sponsored programs or benefits.

Fill in the Gaps: Implement Needed Benefits, Programs or Policies

While numerous social factors impact health, the Business Group selected seven areas of focus—income, access to health care, transportation, food access and insecurity, childcare ,housing and racism—that employers can influence through health and well-being benefits, programs and policies. Take a closer look into each of these social factors. 

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  1. Identify the Social Needs of Employees
  2. Connect Employees with Community Resources
  3. Fill in the Gaps: Implement Needed Benefits, Programs or Policies
  4. More Guide Sections