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As workplaces become more diverse, employers must do more than use simple language to support this thing we call health literacy. They must also be aware of cultural variables that may impede understanding.

increasing-health-literacy-In 1992, I moved to Japan. At only 23 years old, I was as healthy as a horse. And twice as smart. My experience with the health care system in the U.S. was limited to annual check-ups and vaccinations. That lack of experience meant I really had no preconceptions of what to expect in Japan. I was a blank slate.

“National health care?” Sure thing. I’m no scofflaw.

“No appointments necessary?” Ok, if that’s how it works. No problem.

“MRIs for $100?” Sign me up! Oh, and what’s an MRI?

When I returned to the States in 2005, I was a wise old man of 37 — wise about the Japanese health care system, that is. That’s really the only one I knew.

Adapting to health care in the U.S. was challenging. Here I was, a native English speaker in my late 30’s and couldn’t tell the difference between a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. I kinda, sorta understood what a premium was. It’s that thing they take out of your paycheck, right? Wait, you get a choice of how much they take out?! Hold on! I need some education!

Now, my wife, that was a different story. She is not a native English speaker and this was her first time living abroad. She was having a hard-enough time dealing with general culture shock as it was. Trying to navigate the health care system with her husband (who now truly felt only twice as smart as a horse) was just about the most stressful thing I’ve seen her go through.

One thing my wife and I did have going for us, though, was a pretty solid foundation in general health knowledge. Diet, exercise, disease prevention, all that. So, what made it so difficult?

Was it truly a “health literacy” problem? Or was it rooted in “benefits literacy?” Or “health system literacy?” Had we been on an HDHP, would it have crossed over into “financial literacy?”

And how unique was our situation, really? Think about your employees entering the workforce for the first time. What support do they need? Also consider those aging out of their parents’ coverage. How can you help them?

The point is, no matter where someone is from, what language they speak, or how old they are, they bring their own experiences to the equation of health literacy… or whatever we’re calling this thing.

As an employer, there’s a lot you can and should do to educate your employees so they can take full advantage of the benefits you've provided. Start with these resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most importantly, make sure to demonstrate empathy. Let them know they’re not alone. Your reward will be happier and, we hope, healthier employees.

Want to read more about health literacy? Check out this other helpful blog

Don McCormick is the Content Marketing Lead at Businessolver and author of “Among Americans: A Guide for Cross-cultural Communication.” Questions? Contact Don at Linkedin.com/in/Don-McCormick.

View all Posts by Don McCormick