Commentary: Every chief financial officer and senior benefits executive knows almost exactly how much health care is directly costing their business – and they know that it is growing each year at an unsustainable rate.

But do they know how much health care is costing them indirectly in lost productivity, even when employees are on the job?

A new poll shows 91% of Americans reported dealing with health benefits, health insurance or health care-related issues while on the job – and 45% said it affected their productivity. Workers reported spending an average of 3.5 hours per month dealing with health care related issues when they would otherwise be working, according to the survey conducted by Harris Poll.

Cumulatively, that’s real time and a real problem for individuals, for businesses and for the health system as a whole. Not only are health costs climbing at 6-8% for businesses every year, companies are losing uncounted hours of production from employees stuck on the phone trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B in an all-too-often baffling health care system.

Also see:How employers are controlling health care costs.”

So what can be done to empower CFOs and benefits executives to cut health care costs and keep employees focused on the job?

In this context, it is clear that real change must start with the employee because it’s the employee – or the “consumer” of health care – who is making most of the errors that lead to unnecessary care, wasted spending and lost productivity. Contrary to what many believe, employees make more than 99% of their health care decisions outside of a health professional’s office.

They are “patients” – face-to-face with health professionals – only a small fraction of the time. They are “consumers” – or potential consumers – of health care most of the time.

And, as consumers, they make mistakes. This can happen for a variety of reasons: the health care system is fragmented and extremely difficult to navigate. The hundreds of new health care apps and programs coming at them make decision-making even more overwhelming, especially when they’re faced with a serious health care issue and need timely help.

Also see:How Jiff uses technology to reduce health care costs.”

Add in a host of contextual barriers people face every day, from emotions and finances to cultural and family issues. These aren’t insignificant “warm and fuzzy” issues. These are real issues that impact care, good decision-making and productivity. For example, research shows that anxious employees are 46% more expensive – not to mention less productive while on the job.

We must support employees comprehensively and continually as they navigate the health system, from enrollment in medical insurance to selecting general practitioners and specialists to coordinating visits to billing questions and beyond. We cannot just leave workers and families to fend for themselves until they fall ill and are too often forced to flail about to figure out what is covered, which doctors they can see and when. This is a failing approach.

We need to focus on going beyond managing the illness to supporting the person managing that illness. There’s a big difference in the two approaches. Helping the whole person means bringing the financial, care delivery and life elements together to make it easier for them to make the best decision possible about their use of health care. It also allows them to be less distracted and more focused when they’re at work.

Also see:Multiple options open to employers considering health advocacy.”

Individuals thrive when they have one-on-one personal support from an expert resource who takes the time to listen to them as individuals and to understand what else is going on in their lives that might be affecting decisions. This support can come in the form of answering questions about benefits coverage, translating complicated claims forms, reviewing bill accuracy, finding the right providers, explaining treatment options, preparing questions for doctor visits, coordinating care and more.

By engaging employees earlier and more comprehensively, companies can consistently reduce their health spending while improving satisfaction and workplace productivity because employees – the consumers of health care – are using the care more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Employers will reach all workers who use the health system – and not just the most complex, high-cost cases. They will save not only money but time in the form of reduced legwork, fewer duplicative conversations to multiple health providers, and less anxiety and more peace of mind.

A recent survey found that 80% of CFOs recently surveyed say they “feel powerless” when it comes to managing how much their companies spend on health care, and research shows there’s no real end in sight for high health care costs.

Also see:How to avoid open enrollment anxiety.”

But that doesn’t mean CFOs and senior health benefits executives need to feel powerless – and there is no reason workers should eat up valuable time at the office while dealing with health issues. By equipping employees with the right support, they can save time, cut waste and save real dollars in a sustainable way.

Chris Covill is the executive vice president of strategic partnerships at Accolade, Inc.

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