Why declining life expectancy matters to employers
A recent study published in JAMA found that between 2014-2017, life expectancy in the U.S. declined. While the decline is not precipitous — dropping from 78.9 years to 78.6 years — it has raised some concerns, especially the fact that adults between the ages of 25 and 64 of all racial and ethnic groups experienced the largest increase in mortality (6%). That means this trend is impacting people of working age more than other groups.
The main causes of the increased number of deaths were drug overdoses, suicide, and health problems caused by alcoholism. But a range of other serious, chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were also significant contributors to the higher mortality rate.
Beyond the human costs highlighted by this data, there is also an impact on the U.S. workforce. People in their prime working years are living with chronic health problems as well as mental health and substance use disorders that may significantly impact their productivity and increase their use of health and disability benefits.
Employers have a key role to play in helping employees lead healthier lives and reduce their risk of mental health and substance use disorders, as well as chronic diseases and the increased early mortality that can be the result of these diseases.
Make mental healthcare more accessible. The JAMA study highlighted the impact of deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol misuse. Many employees and family members struggling with these issues don’t receive the care that could prevent these problems and their tragic consequences. One reason may be the difficulty of finding and connecting with mental healthcare providers. Not only is there a national shortage of these providers, many do not participate in health insurance plans, putting the cost of care out of reach for many employees.
Employers can provide resources to help employees connect with these providers, through an employee assistance program (EAP), a nurse or behavioral health provider phone line, or an independent service that vets providers and connects employees with them. Employers may also want to consider offering other paths to mental healthcare that may be more flexible and less costly, such as online therapy.
Help employees with high-deductible health plans. Some employees put off seeking needed care or filling essential prescriptions because of the high out-of-pocket costs associated with their health insurance plans. While high-deductible plans are designed to shift costs to employees and lower employers’ costs, the result is often that employees are not getting the screenings and treatment they need. Their conditions go untreated, leading to worse health consequences and eventually, even higher healthcare spending.
Employers can help employees with these high out-of-pocket costs by making contributions to employee health reimbursement arrangement accounts. Another option is to create an incentive plan and add money to employee health savings accounts when employees undergo recommended health screenings and make other healthy lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or losing weight.
Create a healthier workplace. Employees spend a significant amount of time each week in the workplace environment, so employers have an opportunity to help them build the healthy lifestyle habits that can lower the risk of developing chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
Promote better eating habits by offering a range of healthy options in the cafeteria and vending machines. Encourage employees to get active by offering lunchtime walking clubs, onsite exercise classes or creating contests like a stair climbing fitness challenge or a number-of-steps-per-day challenge. Employers can also sponsor employee teams that take part in local 5K walk/run events or other fitness-related activities.
Because stress has a negative impact on both physical and mental health, employers can offer stress management workshops and meditation, yoga, or mindfulness sessions during the workday to help lower employees’ stress levels and provide them with stress management.