What Employers Need To Know About Social Determinants Of Health – Forbes

What Employers Need To Know About Social Determinants Of Health Forbes
What Employers Need To Know About Social Determinants Of Health Forbes

If we want to create a mentally healthy work environment for all employees, we need to understand what determines health. And ninety percent of what drives our health throughout a lifetime is our social and physical environment. These are “social determinants of health”: conditions in the environments where people live, learn, play, and work that affects a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life risks and outcomes.

These social determinants of health include a variety of factors, such as safe housing, health care services, public safety, high-quality education, access to healthy food, and more. In recent years, a growing body of evidence shows the critical role of these determinants for mental health outcomes.

While many of these factors are beyond an employer’s control, understanding their impact can help leaders and managers to build empathy and trust, understand the needs of employees, and develop strategies and solutions that meet those needs. Stable employment and a safe, supportive workplace are also important social determinants of health – and this is the area where employers can take action.

In particular, there are two variables to consider when it comes to social determinants of health: risk factors and protective factors. Risk factors occur in the context of scarcity and isolation. Protective factors, however, are those defined by connection and empathy. In the same way that social stress can be contagious and negatively affect human relationships, research shows that reducing social stress can create more space for empathy, which is the foundation for constructing meaningful relationships.

By reducing risk factors and promoting protective factors, employers can ensure that the work environment is both informed by an understanding of social determinants of health and is a positive influence on mental health. There are three key actions for leaders and frontline managers: watching for burnout, promoting empathy, and celebrating employees.

Look for signs of burnout

Managing stress is essential for supporting mental health and avoiding burnout. Eight-in-ten employees report they are stressed by at least one factor at their workplace. However, stress is not inherent to work. Employers should acknowledge the difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is unavoidable and can even help keep employees motivated and ready to learn. Stress is what happens when the pressure becomes excessive and has a negative impact on employees’ health and performance.

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People need time to recover from the pressure that can come with many types of work. When this recovery time is diminished, exhaustion, burnout, and mental health challenges can follow. Managers should routinely check in with employees to find out how their workload is going and ask them what would make them feel supported.

Be an empathetic leader

Leaders’ ability to listen and respond with empathy is highly correlated with key management skills, including engaging, coaching, and making sound decisions—not to mention overall performance. In fact, research based on an analysis of companies that focus on empathy within the organization, as well as on customers, find that these companies have a 400% higher stock price on average.

Understanding the needs of other people is at the heart of empathy. Managers best serve their teams when they demonstrate an awareness that employees’ thoughts, feelings and overall well-being are influenced by a complex set of factors, including their background and everyday environment. Simply put, they can show empathetic leadership by understanding social determinants of health.

Celebrate employees and life outside the workplace

As crucial as it is to support employees when they struggle, it’s just as vital to celebrate their wins. When employees are empowered to share both their professional and personal successes—whether it’s a promotion or completing a marathon—they feel valued as human beings, not just workers.

A SHRM/Workhuman survey found employees are 64% more likely to say their company is a good place to work if they are very or somewhat satisfied with how life events are celebrated. Ultimately, companies that encourage a positive community experience around employees’ lives give them the confidence to express their full, diverse selves, and can create an environment that supports positive mental health outcomes.

The workplace is a critical factor in mental health and, ideally, a rich resource for information, resources, and support. Yet it’s also just one point in the broader constellation of social and environmental factors that shape each person’s life and health. For employers, the goal should be to understand and be sensitive to these other factors—and then build support that addresses common needs and makes the workplace a positive catalyst for mental health.   

The outcome can be employees that ‘thrive” versus “survive” while carrying out their workplace responsibilities.