It’s troubling, unjust and a genuine risk to the success of the Minnesota business community. Health inequities are a reality for Minnesota, and the faces of that reality far too often come from communities of color and the American Indian community.
For no biological reason, these communities are at a higher risk for serious and chronic health conditions like obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Much higher. This higher risk is due to inequities that help determine the health of these communities, such as a livable income, positive community connections, safe and good housing, high quality education and access to adequate and healthy food.
The diabetes rate among American Indians, for example, is 400 percent higher than the general population. For blacks, the rate is 150 percent higher. That disparity should concern all of us from the perspective of caring about our families, friends and neighbors.
And from a business perspective? The state’s changing demographics mean that health inequities will begin to have increasingly serious implications for the business sector, considering that by 2035, one-quarter of our state’s population will be people of color.
Today, baby boomers are retiring and labor-force growth is slowing. At the end of 2017 job openings outnumbered people looking for work. Minnesota’s businesses are projected to face a continuing shortage of workers in the coming years.
That means we will need more people from all communities as the backbone of our workforce. And we need these future workers and leaders to be healthy so they can contribute to our growing economy.
If we do nothing to address the inequities facing our state, it will impact one in four of our state’s population in the form of time missed at work and lost productivity due to illness and disease. Can we sustain our economic vitality if one-fourth of our population is unwell?
Conversely, the gains from addressing health inequities are measurable — and also, beyond measure.
In human terms, eliminating systemic health inequities would save an estimated 766 lives in Minnesota each year — while ensuring that more people can support themselves and their families.
In economic terms, healthier and more productive workers would mean a savings of $2.26 billion annually in increased employment and decreased absenteeism. Imagine how we could put those savings to work for our state and its industries.
These projections come from a 2018 University of Minnesota report, “Economic Benefit of Achieving Health Equity in Minnesota.” Researchers arrived at these significant numbers by analyzing potential lives saved, employment increases and productivity improvement resulting from eliminating disparities.
Health equity is a business issue because it has a direct impact on business’ bottom line. And the interests of the business community intersect those of the community at large.
But what can businesses do to impact health? The answer is prioritizing prevention and equity — a mind-set reflected in policies and practices, as well as investments and education. Employers can help ensure equity-based business practices by:
1. Seeking employee input on workplace inclusivity related to key practices, policies, events and communications;
2. Ensuring that diversity and inclusion are core values in all workplace policies, including those related to sourcing and procurement;
3. Adapting everyday workplace practices to reflect diverse employee needs, such as accommodations for religious observances, language translations, gender-neutral restrooms and culturally appropriate food options;
4. Contracting with health plan providers that demonstrate a culturally inclusive perspective and adopt initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic disparities; and
5. Supporting and investing in the communities where employees live and work, considering that 80 percent of health is impacted by our environment, behaviors and social and economic factors.
Business leaders who want a diverse and healthy employee base should also look beyond their own organizations for support and leverage. For example, by partnering with community leaders to share population heath data, businesses can tailor health and well-being solutions that address the root cause of chronic diseases across their workforce.
And by supporting legislative policies that help eliminate inequities, businesses can galvanize their industry’s equity efforts — and demonstrate their own leadership.
Minnesota’s heralded quality of life and strong business sector pivot on basic principles of respect, ingenuity and integrity. Forward-thinking businesses that want the assurance of a healthy workforce will act now to advance health equity, for themselves and their communities.
Janelle Waldock is the vice president of Community Health and Health Equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.