Are You Prepared for the Health Impact of Climate Change? 

Stranded on a large ice fin, a man stands on top looking at the lake surrounding him. DCrane Photo
Jul 01 2021

Heading into the summer of 2021, we’re generally enjoying increased freedom as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. However, many parts of the country are grappling with high heat, drought and the constant threat of wildfires – all very visible signs of climate change.

The question isn’t if your organization and employees will be impacted by climate change, but when and how. While it’s easy to consider climate change as “out of scope” in a benefits strategy, it has real implications for population health. Climate change will lead to increases in infectious disease and injuries secondary to disasters. By 2030, climate change is expected to cost $2-4 billion per year in direct damage costs to health.

How do we approach climate change from a health and well-being perspective? Two types of action are called for: reactive (supporting employee well-being in the face of climate events) and preventive (helping to reduce the impact of climate change and thus the need for reactive action).

Let’s start with the role benefits play in helping support employees during climate events and fostering organizational resilience. In 2020, US employees faced wildfires and ice storms (made still more difficult by the pandemic). These events had tangible impacts: employees lost power, were displaced from their homes, and worse. Employers can prepare now to support employees during climate events like these by:

  • Exploring leave options: Set guidance for how time off will be handled for employees in situations of prolonged power outages, displacements, or climate-related injuries.
  • Supporting mental health: Living through a climate event can be traumatizing. Provide benefits that can support mental health and resilience during and after the event. Consider asking mental health providers if they are developing programs focused on climate change disasters.
  • Taking a local approach: Different climate events will impact health outcomes in different ways, as outlined by Oliver Wyman. For example, extreme temperatures have a direct impact on infectious diseases like mosquito-borne illnesses. These types of specific, local, climate events may require tailored strategies. Consider what the distribution of your population means in terms of different climate event risks and how you can support employees in each location throughout the specific events they may experience.

Benefits can also play a role in helping employees and organizations reduce the impact of climate change. It will take everyone working together to reverse climate change and employers can act as facilitators. According to a Vanderbilt study, 17% of employees surveyed were offered Employee Energy Benefits (EEBs). That’s a good starting point. Consider these additional strategies for your benefits programs:

  • Provide virtual benefit services: See where you have gaps in your benefits offering from a virtual perspective. Offering employees virtual healthcare visits not only reduces travel (carbon footprint savings are estimated to range between 0.70-372 kg CO2e per consultation), but can reduce actual waste of supplies – think of that crinkly paper you sit on at the doctor’s office!
  • Incentivize "green" behaviors through your wellness programs: Provide incentives or challenges that focus on climate impact. You might focus on eating local foods, or active commuting options like walking or bicycling whenever possible
  • Help your employees travel smart: As we start to think about the "return to the office" for some employees, or those essential employees that never left, consider providing transportation benefits that incentivize use of lower carbon options like mass transit, biking, or carpooling
  • Consider flexible work options: Working from home eliminates commutes, real estate, etc. And some employers are considering benefits that connect employees to clean energy providers for their home.
  • Go paperless: Look for ways to eliminate ID cards and paper mailings - not only will this help the environment, but will save you money!
  •  Think about your social responsibility strategies: Lower-income families are typically hit hardest by climate events because of where they live and simply from having fewer resources to help them recover from a disaster. Benefits that address inequities now may help reduce climate impacts later. 

This journey can feel overwhelming – you’re taking on climate change! But remember, you aren’t alone. Engage – and if need be, push – your partners. This can range from evaluating current benefits vendors’ commitment to addressing climate change to partnering with your internal sustainability departments. You may find your own workforce is more than ready to pitch in – and will appreciate having a framework in which they can make a meaningful contribution to this critical effort.

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