Have you ever ignored a health problem? You’re not alone. Many people overestimate how healthy they are.

Take weight, for example. According to a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study reported by The New York Times, 58 percent of overweight young people in Mexico considered their weight to be normal, and just 10 percent of surveyed obese people truthfully put themselves in the right category. This misconception can have serious consequences: Obesity and related chronic diseases drive $93 billion each year in health insurance claims for employers alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Imagine if employees who are obese better understood their real health status; this could lead to happier employees and higher productivity for you.

One reason that employees overestimate their health could be that they don’t know how harmful their everyday activities are. For instance, many of us have heard the new mantra “sitting is the new smoking.” Many people spend much of their workday sitting at desks or in front of computers, and we rarely think about the adverse health effects. Sitting for long periods of time is related to heart disease, cancer and other conditions, writes The Washington Post. Your employees may think that what they don’t know can’t hurt them, but leading a sedentary lifestyle is a silent killer — and one that employers can’t afford to ignore.

Employees who underestimate their health risks can quickly become employees who are ratcheting up your health care costs. A whitepaper from Healthentic says that 1 percent of people are responsible for 41 percent of medical and pharmacy costs. The paper goes on to state that a typical “high-cost” patient (those in the top one percent) had an average annual health cost of $113,379. The overall average is $2,751. You can see how even one high-cost patient covered under your workplace health plan could affect your bottom line.

Importance of Health Literacy

What’s the key to addressing your employees’ rosy picture of their health? Promoting health literacy among your workers is a place to start. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Health assessments: Most health insurance companies and wellness program vendors offer health assessments that your employees can use to establish a baseline of their own health. This can help them understand where they need to improve.
  • Biometric screenings: These are often offered alongside health assessments, and they provide objective clinical data to employees and their health care providers. They can include tests for BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose. The results can help guide important discussions between employees and their doctor that could lead to preventive health measures.
  • Worksite wellness: Many employers have comprehensive wellness programs to provide incentives for their employees to become healthier. These are commonly offered by health insurance carriers. If a soup-to-nuts program isn’t an option for you, consider more grassroots ideas: You can get some thought starters from our article “5 Virtually Free Ways to Get Your Employees Engaged in Their Health.” Even something as simple as starting a walking club or encouraging people to stand more around the office can lead to real health improvement.
  • Preventing high-cost cases: Certain diseases can lead to major expenses. Heart conditions and cancer are the top two costliest medical conditions, according to a Columbia University GRAPH analysis. Employers can increase health literacy by hosting webinars about the risks and prevention of such diseases. You can also work with your health insurance carrier to gather other materials that can increase awareness of expensive — and deadly — conditions.

Having a clear picture of our health status is important, because risks can be ignored when we think we’re healthier than we really are.

Andrew Reinbold has been focused on the health care marketing and communication space for over five years. He currently manages business-to-business content for Anthem, Inc. that is relevant to employers and brokers as they navigate the changing health care environment.