The AHA walks the walk on health equity

In support of the American Heart Association (AHA) 2024 Impact Goal to advance cardiovascular health for all, the CEO Roundtable collaborated with the AHA to architect a roadmap to further drive health equity in the workplace.

And the AHA is committed to creating a more inclusive, empowering atmosphere for its approximately 3,000 staff members by ensuring the roadmap is embedded into the fabric of the organization.

As the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke, the AHA has long been a champion of removing barriers to health care access and quality.

Health equity – the opportunity for all people to be healthy – is at the center of the AHA’s mission to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. It’s central to the AHA’s many endeavors, including funding research, investing in community-led solutions, advocating for equitable public health policies and access to care, and providing heart-health education and support.

The organization has established 10 actionable, measurable Commitments (PDF) to urgently address health disparities stemming from social factors, unique challenges in rural communities and structural racism.

“Most of our Commitments are externally facing,” said Gerald Johnson, executive vice president for the office of health equity and chief diversity officer for the AHA. “But we also have to ask what we’re doing to get our own house in order.”

One of these commitments is sharply focused on increasing the diversity of AHA’s workforce, including leadership. The AHA is committed to filling at least one-third of hires with diverse individuals. The AHA will mitigate bias in the recruitment, development, advancement and retention of diverse colleagues.

Equitable access to benefits

The AHA increasingly offers a wide range of benefits built with health and well-being at the forefront, including access to care, retirement plans, paid time off, paid family and medical leave, and tuition assistance.

“We customize our offerings to make sure we’re meeting the unique needs of our employee population,” said Katherine Neverdousky, National Senior Vice President of Human Resources.

That includes free access to medical professionals and counselors by phone, and the ability of staff members to see health professionals they identify with most.

A robust employee assistance program is available 24 hours a day, every day, to help employees during times of need and/or crisis. The EAP also assists with more everyday issues, such as legal consultation and referrals for pet care and home repairs. Financial health and career development are important aspects of workplace equity.

The AHA has recently changed its retirement plan offerings to allow new and part-time employees to start saving money with a matching contribution right away. Previously, they had to be employed for a year or more to access such benefits.

The AHA has a buyback plan providing employees a chance to convert their accumulated days off into cash. This is especially beneficial for longtime employees. The plan has been very successful.

Tuition assistance is another new benefit. While many tuition assistance plans require staff to pay upfront and wait for reimbursement, the AHA pays tuition upfront, making access much easier for all employees.

Talking the talk, walking the walk

The organization’s leadership intentionally talks about health equity during regular all-staff meetings and in all internal communication channels.

The AHA’s online “Courageous Conversations” series engages approximately 200 employee a week in a robust, open dialogue on a range of topics: mental health, structural racism, ageism and more.

“We’re creating a safe space to talk about things that are important to people,” Johnson said.

These conversations help employees feel comfortable discussing issues with respect and sensitivity. Likewise, the Structural Racism and Health Equity Language Guide (PDF) helps employees write about important issues using consistent and respectful language.

The language guide, which also helps staff understand historical and systemic discrimination, is updated regularly as language evolves. The guide has been the focus of dozens of training sessions and discussion groups.

Diversity and inclusion

The American Heart Association strives to create a workforce that reflects communities where we work through all levels of the organization.

Sally Pabin, National Senior Vice President, Talent, highlighted the importance of “employer branding,” by creating a platform, #TheAHALife, for employee storytelling and what it means to work at the AHA. This enables the organization to showcase the multi-generational and diverse voices that represent the AHA.

Our internal commitment to health equity is reflected in the fact that more than 45% of new positions and 38% of upper management posts have been filled with diverse candidates, including people from underrepresented races and ethnicities, veterans, people with disabilities and people in the LGBTQ+ community.

The AHA has enhanced its internship program to boost student outreach and provide competitive pay for interns, so students who are unable to accept positions with low or no wages can participate.

The National Organization on Disability honored the AHA as a leading disability employer, and the organization was awarded a Davey Award for its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion marketing video, “You Matter Here.”

“It doesn’t have to be something major or massive,” Pabin said. “Often, it’s just the little things that can make people feel more comfortable in their workspace.”

The AHA ensures people feel valued through 11 unique Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs. These groups are dedicated to supporting and empowering staff with similar life experiences to come together and openly discuss challenges they face in the workplace.

Among the ERGs are those focused on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, veteran status and introversion. ERGs are greatly respected throughout the organization, and new ERGs are formed when needed. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a parenting ERG was created to help employees deal with the unique challenges of online school and families cooped up for long periods of time.

ERGs offer presentations to the organization and regularly offer input at the AHA’s CEO Diversity Advisory Cabinet. They also serve as an internal resource across the business, providing thought leadership in support of the mission.

Leading by example

As a major proponent of health equity, the AHA strives to lead by the example of all the work it does in funding, advocacy and education, but also by the example of its own workplace.

Taken together, the organization’s efforts are crucial to building health equity into everything.

That said, leaders know there is always more to do, and that changes in the workplace and society will require constant evolution.

“We have learned a lot on our equity journey, and we’ve come a long way,” Johnson said. “But we know that as long as health inequities exist in our country we will have more work to do. And we know that our workplace is a reflection of the larger world, so we have to keep up our focus internally and externally. We’ll keep up this work as long as it takes.”