Each year of college completed by an individual can reduce mortality rates by 15% to 19%, according to the Brookings Institution. The research also revealed that the mortality rates of high school graduates are twice as high as those of college graduates.
Though these statistics may be surprising, they highlight the link between education level and health. Education is one of many social determinants of health that affect an individual’s functioning, quality of life and health outcomes. When employers support educational endeavors, they not only improve employee satisfaction, retention and confidence, but they also help their workforce stay healthy, reduce stress and even boost productivity.
The Connection Between Education Level and Health
“If we really want to save lives in this country, prevent disease and reduce health care costs, we need to do something about education,” said Steve Woolf, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, in a video for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
Research shows that education is a powerful social determinant of health. In part, that’s because education itself creates opportunities for better health, such as the ability to earn more money and therefore obtain medical services, live in thriving neighborhoods, afford nutritious food and more. People with lower levels of education don’t have access to these same opportunities to improve their health.
“Those who have higher levels of education have greater exposure to people, resources and information that focus on healthy lifestyles, which include not only eating habits but also physical activities,” said Gwen Corley Creighton, program director of Richmond Promise Neighborhoods, who also spoke in the RWJF video.
Education isn’t only about what one learns in a classroom. It’s also about health literacy — the degree to which individuals can understand and communicate basic health information, such as how to take medications, follow care instructions, manage chronic diseases and make healthy choices. Those with low health literacy may have poorer overall health and make more mistakes when managing their own care.
What Employers Can Do to Address Education
There are many ways for employers to improve employee health through education. Consider the following:
- Career development. Allow employees to attend conferences, participate in job shadowing or mentoring and work on projects that go beyond the scope of their job requirements. Create an employee development plan for each member of the workforce that outlines educational goals and milestones. Career development supports increased incomes that correlate with additional opportunities for better health.
- Support for higher education. Express a company-wide commitment to lifelong learning. Partner with local schools and universities as well as career or workforce development companies. Employers may even be able to provide input on the curriculum — particularly for online, competency-based programs — to ensure it meets career goals. Permit flexible work schedules, when possible, so employees can attend classes. Provide tuition reimbursement to help offset the cost of attaining higher education. Some employers even prepay tuition so employees aren’t faced with the burden of upfront costs. Support for higher education allows employees to obtain degrees that pave the way for higher incomes and better health outcomes.
- Health literacy. Educate employees about their health and wellness benefits, and bring in experts to provide culturally competent health education. When employees become more health literate, they’re more likely to make healthy choices and participate in their own health.
Employers play a critical role in addressing the connection between education level and health. By supporting employees in their educational journeys, you can help tackle this important social determinant of health while also improving the abilities of your workforce.