Why Health Illiteracy Could Be Making Employees Sick

How well do you listen to your doctor’s directions or orders regarding medications, exercise, diet and other health-compliance issues? When you go for a test, do you understand what’s being done and why? Are you aware of recommended preventive-care measures you should be practicing? Do you recognize signs and symptoms of potentially serious illnesses early enough to intervene, or wait until your health deteriorates enough to justify calling a medical professional?

If you recognize yourself in any of these queries, you are among the 88 percent of American adults with health literacy challenges. And when you stop to consider that nine out of 10 adults may lack the skills to manage their health and prevent disease – and apply that consideration to your workforce – the impact of that lack of knowledge should make you feel sick!

The Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Nearly 90 million Americans have difficulty understanding and using the information shared by their doctor, clinic or hospital. A high degree of reading literacy does not necessarily translate into a high degree of health literacy, nor does a college education.

Poor health literacy affects individuals of many different ages, languages, cultures and education levels. For example, someone may question if he can drink coffee before a fasting lab test, forget how and when to take newly prescribed medication, or decide to stop taking medication when she is feeling better. And it can be difficult for anyone, regardless of their reading literacy skills, to remember instructions or read a medication label when feeling sick.

Only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Furthermore, 14 percent of adults (30 million people) have below-basic health literacy. In studies, these adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42 percent). Additionally, there is a mismatch between the reading level of health information and the reading skills of the public. There also is a mismatch between the communication skills of lay people and health professionals.

Without clear information and an understanding of the information’s importance, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests, end up in the emergency room more often, and have a harder time managing chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. As reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, individuals with limited or low health literacy

  • Skip preventive care
  • Are more likely to have chronic conditions and less able to manage the conditions
  • Have more preventable hospital visits and admissions, with longer stays
  • Are more likely to use medications inappropriately or ineffectively
  • Are often ashamed to ask for help making health care decisions.

Improving Health Literacy in the Workplace

For employers, the relationship of low health literacy to poor health behaviors results in overall higher costs of drug, medical and disability claims, lower productivity and higher absenteeism. Employers can have a significant positive impact on the health literacy of their employees and, ultimately, influence better health and financial outcomes. Here are recommended steps to improve health literacy in the workplace:

  • Use clear and simple messaging. Keep it simple. Clearly state the actions you want your employee to take, and discuss options and potential consequences.
  • Get rid of complex jargon.Insurance and medical industry professionals throw around a lot of jargon. Ask your insurance provider and benefits consultant to include descriptions of benefits and how to use the benefits in consistent, easy-to-understand language. This includes their member website or portal, Explanation of Benefits (EOB), emails, and mailers.
  • Treat everyone the same.No matter their job title, assume all employees may have difficulty understanding health, wellness and benefits communications. Use simple, easy-to-understand language.
  • Empower employees to take charge of their health.When people take an active role in their healthcare, research shows they fare better in both health and financial outcomes. Increase employee confidence in their ability to advocate for themselves by providing educational materials and holding workshops. Topics could include how to talk to a doctor, how to get more support when you need it, and how to ask questions about insurance coverage.
  • Identify a navigator.Consider a current staff member or external support person who can help employees navigate the complex world of benefits available.
  • Technology isn’t for everyone. Don’t leave behind those who aren’t as comfortable or familiar with technology. Depending on the range of ages and skills in your workforce, use a variety of communication methods to share health and wellness information. This includes emails, texts, and verbal updates at team meetings.
  • Repeat information regularly.Don’t expect your once-a-year open enrollment presentation to be memorable enough that your employees remember their benefits. Plan year-round campaigns and communications using frequent but brief messages, and talk with employees about their role in managing their health.
  • Remember the household decision makers. While you may give employees a lot of information while they are at work, the person making decisions about when and where to go for healthcare may not be getting that same information translated to them. Consider home mailings, invitations to open-enrollment meetings, and other ways to ensure all family members on the medical plan receive credible sources of health and wellness information.

The benefits of health literacy improvement include enhanced communication, greater adherence to treatment, increased ability to engage in self-care, and overall improved health status. Healthier employees result in a healthier workplace, and we can all feel good about that.


If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!