The Missing Link to a Healthier Workforce

HR and benefits professionals have an uphill battle in helping employees adopt healthy behaviors, but Alexandra Drane says a little empathy can go a long way.

Thursday, March 31, 2016
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Empathy, says Alexandra Drane, is "the single-biggest missing ingredient in the healthcare space."

Drane, the co-founder and chief visionary officer at Danvers, Mass.-based Eliza Corp., a provider of health engagement-management solutions, urged the HR and benefits leaders sitting in on yesterday morning's opening session of Human Resource Executive's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference -- titled "Mentioning the Unmentionables: Is 'Life' the Missing Link? -- to devote more energy and effort to understanding the stressors in their workers' daily lives, and helping them mitigate the serious impact of these stressors on their physical health.

Drane did acknowledge, however, that this will be no small feat, using the conference's Las Vegas backdrop to illustrate her point.

"Look around while you're here," she implored the audience members assembled at the Aria Resort & Casino, which sits in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip.

"In Las Vegas, they're selling good times -- bacon cheeseburgers at the hotel restaurants, martinis at the hotel bars and so on," she said.

"The 'product' we're trying to sell to employees is changes in human behavior," Drane continued. "We're selling [the idea of eating] quinoa, exercising and doing the stuff that a lot of people don't really like doing." the bulk of the remainder of her hour-long presentation -- delivered as attendees enjoyed their gluten-free muffins, turkey bacon, oatmeal and other heart-healthy breakfast fare -- Drane focused not only on encouraging employees to embrace healthy eating and exercise habits, but also on the need to "expand the definition of health to include 'life.' "

The stressors of daily life -- or the "social determinants of health" -- often manifest themselves physically as well as mentally, she said.

For example, "if thinking about your grandmother's Alzheimer's diagnosis is making you depressed, or your boss makes you so angry that you can't breathe properly, or if you're increasingly looking to the bottle to 'cope,' . . . then 'life' is making you unhealthy."

Drane pointed to recent data, such as one recent survey from Eliza Corp., which found 94 percent of respondents indicated feeling stress as a result of dealing with at least one "life issue" such as money concerns, job stress, sleeping problems, relationship conflicts or serving as a caregiver for young children and/or elderly parents or other loved ones. (Overall, more than 44 million U.S. individuals act as caregivers, and more than 42 percent of Gen Xers are currently taking care of both young children and elderly relatives, according to data cited by Drane.) More than 40 percent of these same survey participants said they were currently grappling with four to six of these life issues. She also cited a 2015 study conducted at Duke University, that found going through a divorce is as detrimental to one's physical health as diabetes or smoking cigarettes.

Still, these statistics pale in comparison to findings that individuals dealing with one or more of these issues are twice as likely to develop chronic illness due to stress, are five times more likely to experience mental-health problems, and are several times more likely to have diabetes, Drane said.

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Many employees turn to not-so-healthy coping mechanisms when faced with mounting stress, she said, offering herself as an example.

"Sometimes when I'm stressed, I end up pouring myself too many glasses of wine. Then I don't sleep well; I wake up at 2 a.m., fighting with whomever I fought with earlier in the day. Or stressing about whatever I was stressing out about earlier that day. And that's not healthy."

Employers -- and HR and benefits professionals in particular -- must determine what life issues are most critical to their employees and provide the necessary support to help them deal with said issues in better, healthier ways, said Drane, who also noted some of the health conditions most impacting individuals and employees in the United States, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

"Of course, I'm in no way downplaying the impact these diseases have on our people, and we should focus on those," says Drane.

"But we should also focus on [helping employees combat] 'life sucks disease.' [In designing benefit offerings], let's hold empathy as our true north. Let's really understand what's most affecting [our employees'] health."

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