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A Primer on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Employee Benefits

Do you know whether your benefits plan is working for or against your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts? Here’s what you can do to ensure your company offers the most inclusive benefits package possible.

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Over the course of about 18 months, a swell of organizations have publicly denounced deep-rooted discrimination and pledged to hold themselves accountable for more equitable workplaces. And in late April, a Willis Towers Watson survey showed that many organizations are putting their money where their mouth is.

What does this look like in action? Of the nearly 450 surveyed employers — who collectively employ more than 6 million people — 80% said they would amplify diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) through company policies and culture over the next three years. Another 72% of employers said they would promote DEI-related aspects of their benefits programs to increase health equality and access in their benefit plans.

“By shifting benefit program discussions from inclusivity to equitable health and wealth outcomes, employers will be able to identify specific areas for improvement — and that often leads to a focus on access, affordability, and quality,” said Rachael McCann, senior director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson.

It’s inspiring to see so many employers moving toward benefits that support organizational DEI strategies. It shows that DEI isn’t just a trendy management tool to boost engagement, productivity, and innovation (though it does help deliver those things). In the 21st-century workplace, inclusion in employee benefits has become a moral and business imperative.

What Is DEI?

Like any business initiative, a successful DEI program requires a solid foundation. If you hope to drive lasting change, you need to begin your journey by learning what DEI is and the value that it can bring. Let’s begin by breaking down the components of DEI.

  • Diversity, in its simplest form, is the presence of a wide range of differences among individuals within a group — in this case, a workplace. These differences can be mental, physical, or social.
  • Equity means everyone in the group has fair and just access to opportunities. In your pursuit of equity, you find and eradicate barriers that might prevent certain group members from thriving.
  • Inclusion refers to a sense of belonging. Do group members of differing identities feel seen and respected? Do they feel they can participate and achieve their potential?

It’s important to note that all three of these elements must work in unison. After all, an organization can be diverse but not inclusive (though employees who don’t feel welcome probably won’t stick around for long). Furthermore, the parameters of DEI are always evolving. Just look at definitions and best practices from 10 years ago to see how far we’ve come. As you sharpen your DEI focus, it’s important to think beyond outdated diversity initiatives like hiring quotas.

With that in mind, set a DEI foundation that’s strong but not rigid. Start by assessing your current situation and gathering the data you need to promote change. Take stock of your entire employee population. Then, turn your attention to subgroups to identify pressing issues you want to address through your inclusive benefits program.

Why Health Equality Is Paramount to DEI Success

In the pursuit of benefits that bolster DEI efforts, perhaps no issue is more urgent than health inequality (i.e., the systemic, preventable, and unjust differences in health outcomes and mortality rates across different groups of people). Health inequalities are the direct result of disparities in well-being, medical care, and the capacity to pay for that care.

Black women experiencing lower breast cancer survival rates than white women is one example of health inequality. Black and Hispanic folks being more likely than white people to die from COVID-19 is another. Historically, health inequalities disproportionately impact communities of color, people of lower socioeconomic status, those who live in remote or rural areas, LGBTQ+ individuals, and disabled folks.

As you strive for increased team diversity, there’s a good chance you’ll hire people from these marginalized groups. You need to be prepared to combat these disparities to meet the demands of a diverse workforce. Offering inclusive benefits isn’t just the decent thing to do; it also makes good business sense. One 2018 study estimated that companies could regain $135 million annually via improved productivity and lower medical costs by eliminating racial health inequalities.

Employee Value

How do you go about ensuring your benefits package advances health equality? Perhaps you can offer flex time in your inclusive benefits package so employees can schedule annual checkups, immunizations, and preventive screenings during the workday. To help employees obtain a primary care doctor, compile a vetted list of in-network providers they can reference. Or perhaps you could bring in a medical professional to administer annual flu shots in your office.

However, one of the best ways to promote health equality is by lowering cost-related barriers to access. For many employees, a one-size-fits-all health plan isn’t enough. Of the 158 million Americans who get health insurance through their employers, almost a quarter are “underinsured.” They technically have coverage, but they don’t have the means to cover their plan’s steep out-of-pocket costs.

Instead of letting your employees go into serious medical debt or forgo important care, consider offering Paytient, which helps members instantly access money for out-of-pocket care costs. Employees can then choose a payroll-deducted repayment plan that works for them — without any added stress related to interest or fees.

Social Determinants of Health 101

As we continue to peel back the layers of building a benefits program that supports DEI, it’s critically important to also address social determinants of health (SDOH), which contribute to health inequality. These determinants include nonmedical factors such as education and income level, health literacy, housing, access to transportation, etc., and they can help predict someone’s health outcomes.

SDOH Infographic

Thankfully, more employers are expanding their understanding of health equality and the factors that impede it. In the aforementioned Willis Towers Watson survey, more than 80% of employers said they plan to address SDOH in their health benefit programs over the next three years — whether that means monitoring healthcare utilization by condition (37%), evaluating the state of SDOH factors within preventive care (32%), assessing employees’ access to telemedicine (31%), or judging the affordability of benefits apropos of salary (29%).

In the wake of COVID-19, more inclusive benefits that take SDOH into account are absolute game changers. For instance, Noodles & Company rolled out a more inclusive benefits package last October that prioritized mental health, family planning, education, and more. People in marginalized groups are more likely to work front-line food service jobs like those at Noodles & Company; by offering a benefit like free counseling, the fast-casual chain is disrupting cycles of mental disorders in vulnerable groups.

Even if free counseling isn’t an option at your workplace, you can still leverage resources in your health plan to help address SDOH. For example, Paytient cards can help folks cover an extensive range of medical, dental, vision, and even mental health care costs.

Turning the Gaze Inward

DEI isn’t a “project” you can throw a bunch of money at and expect to see sustainable results — it’s a lifelong process of learning and adjusting. As you continue to invest in your inclusive benefits package and other DEI initiatives, it’s equally important to self-reflect and reassess.

You’re human, after all. Even among the best-intentioned humans, biases exist. If you’ve been working on DEI initiatives for a while now, you’re probably familiar with the term “unconscious bias.” You may have even taken association tests through Project Implicit, which helps you learn about the underlying attitudes you hold about various groups by way of simply existing in society.

From the time we’re small children, our family members, friends, educators, neighbors, and the media drill ideas into our heads. Those ideas become embedded in our belief systems. Unlike overt prejudice, these implicit attitudes are triggered unconsciously and automatically, making them hard to disentangle. For example, you might not consciously label overweight people as inherently lazy or bad, but your unconscious bias rears its head when you make a snap judgment about someone based solely on their size.

When unconscious biases wiggle their way into your company policies and programs — inadvertently or not — they perpetuate discrimination. Don’t let unconscious bias undermine your DEI efforts. Instead, work to shed light on unconscious bias and offer teamwide training so people can build the skills they need to spot and mitigate bias tendencies.

For example, it’s rather easy to see how relevant unconscious biases can become in the recruitment and hiring process because so much of it is based on relationship-building and first impressions. One report from Monster found that job candidates have about 6 minutes to impress interviewers, with employers ranking first impressions as the second most important factor when considering an applicant. However, teams get into tricky territory when their hiring decisions rely on intuition or vibes.

Consider confirmation bias. As humans, we tend to quickly make up our minds about people based on personal desires, opinions, and preconceptions instead of focusing on objective merit. Then, we look for, interpret, favor, and remember information in a way that confirms our assessment.

Suppose a hiring manager evaluates a candidate’s resume and draws conclusions about them based on their alma mater. Those opinions will follow them to the in-person interview, when the hiring manager might ask the candidate questions designed to confirm their initial opinion. Guided by confirmation bias, the interviewer might also downplay information that contradicts their initial judgment.

To mitigate this bias, consider outlining a set of standardized, skills-based questions that each interviewer should ask. The interview doesn’t have to be formulaic — every interview lends itself to a unique discussion — but asking each candidate the same set of questions gives everyone a fair chance to stand out.

It’s heartening to see company leaders find renewed interest in supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion. But to ensure those efforts bear lasting fruit (e.g., promoting equitable health and wealth outcomes), HR leaders need to ensure they’re investing in the right initiatives. Your employees deserve nothing but the best.

Healthcare Equity
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